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The Art Of The CEO Apology

We all make mistakes, some more costly than others. Mine, fingers crossed, have so far been either dumb and inconsequential or even dumber with fortuitous results (I am a freelance consultant now, after all).

But when you’re a CEO, crossing fingers and hoping things will go away is simply not an option. At least it isn’t unless you’re the CEO of United Airlines which is currently fighting to restore its already embattled reputation after a series of mistakes of a quite extraordinary magnitude.

Most of us know the scenario and have seen the video. On an overbooked flight which allegedly needed to accommodate four United Airlines staff, a doctor – picked at random - was forcibly dragged off and injured by three security staff after he refused to relinquish his seat. The atrocious behaviour of United Airlines and Chicago airport staff was bad enough but what really capped off the United Continental PR disaster was the CEO’s apology.

It’s one of the most meaningless, half-baked non-apologies ever written by someone who, one assumes, enjoys being thought of as an industry leader. Oscar Munoz apologises for ‘having to re-accommodate customers’…is conducting a ‘detailed review’…and ‘reaching out to this passenger’. Having seen the video multiple times, I’m pretty sure not a single person anticipating boarding a plane today would welcome the prospect of a member of United Airlines reaching out to them now. Some reach.

So a PR disaster was made infinitely worse by the boss’s crass attempt to douse the flames, which instead he fanned with gusto.

Here then are my well-practised rules for saying sorry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or a husband/father/son/lowly member of the team, they work…

Say It –In one of the management books gathering dust on my shelf, I believe this highly unusual step is known as an Illocutionary Force Indicating Device. The rest of us just say sorry. Mr Munoz apologises not for the episode but for having to ‘re-accommodate’ customers. As my daughter would say, WTF?! CEOs think the word sorry weakens them, makes them look fragile at a moment when they need to show strength. It doesn’t. It makes them look human – which one supposes they are but then again you’re never quite certain.

Name People – As of this moment, we don’t know the doctor’s name but we will later today. Calling him ‘the customer’ makes you look inhuman and him like a number. Part of apologising involves looking like you actually care. Personalising is essential.

Offer Recompense – If I break something, I’ll apologise and pay for a replacement. If a company makes this kind of public error, one of the first things it must do to help restore public confidence is dip into its deep pockets and offer something. Anything. Instead United pledges to ‘talk directly’ to the victim – and he is a victim. Would it really have hurt your profit margins to say you’re giving him free internal flights for the rest of his medical career?

Offer Explanation – Let’s face it United PR team, we’re going to find out what happened anyway so it’s better to ‘fess up as soon as you can. Conducting a ‘detailed review’ is bland management-speak for ‘we’re going to try and cover this up but will provide some sort of hopelessly inauthentic excuse in a few days when something else is in the headlines’. Don’t wait to be exposed, telling the truth makes you look much stronger and more contrite.

Be Emotional – Yes, I know you’re a CEO but sadness helps people think you’re genuinely sorry. Mr Munoz, your email displays not a single hint of emotion – it is cold, robotic and looks like it was compiled in a corridor. Think about your customers and the media – this story is packed full of anger, upset, worry, shock. It is an emotional story so fight it with some character.

Use A Thesaurus – ‘Upsetting’ is the only word in this statement that means anything to real people. For a corporate apology to work, it needs to read like something someone would say. ‘Re-accommodate’, ‘reach out’, ‘address’, ‘resolve’…they might work in the boardroom but unfortunately you’re now talking to many millions of people who may never fly United again. Talk to them.

Be Specific – Vagueness just raises more questions. The more specific you can be (and we all know that you know what happened) the more rapidly a company can turn the issue around.

Take Responsibility – If you don’t Mr Munez – and you really haven’t in this statement - it sounds like an excuse not an apology. Instead of ‘our team’ sorting things out, tell the world, your shareholders and the poor saps on the frontline who will no doubt face the flak from angry customers, that you are dealing with it. You. Personally. The buck has stopped, Mr Munez.

Make A Promise – Apologies, as anyone who has ever been married or had children understands, come with the proviso that it ‘won’t happen again’. OK, it might happen again, but the sentiment sounds good. It looks genuine and actually, fingers crossed, it may not happen again. Or at least you’’ be able to cover it up more effectively next time. It also provides those wronged with confidence and reassurance – brand essentials that I fear may now take some time for United to win back.

A proper apology really could have made all the difference…



Osborne Is An Editor Who Simply Can't Make Decisions Without Fear Or Favour

First, the good news. George Osborne will make a fine editor of London's Evening Standard. He’s supremely well connected, intelligent, has a wide array of interests, will bring in great guest columnists and is supported by a brilliant team of journalists. As a former executive on the paper, I can safely say that this last point is true.

There, got that out of the way.

Here’s the bad news. His appointment is a scandal.

One of the principle functions of a newspaper is to stand up for its readers against politicians, financial behemoths and vested interests. Not get into bed with them.

George Osborne is a sitting Tory MP employed to look after a well-to-do part of Cheshire, about 200 miles from the Evening Standard’s London office. He’s also employed by the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, whose global influence over business and our savings is possibly even more powerful than Presidents and Prime Ministers. His closest friends run banks, lobbying companies and media giants.

This is a man who, through no fault of his own, will find it impossible to be objective on any number of issues.

He's a Conservative politician in a Labour city. A multi-millionaire whose family – on his and his wife’s side – is resolutely aristocratic yet is meant to campaign for some of Britain’s poorest. A highly-paid financial adviser for a powerful company that needs extreme scrutiny from a free and fair press. A man who has so many jobs that he can’t possibly be more than a part-time editor for a newspaper staffed by underpaid and overworked full-time journalists.

Offering advice and counsel to a hedge fund for £650,000 a year is one thing. That advice doesn't have to be taken. But making decisions as an editor is entirely different - especially if you are already representing extremely powerful political and financial organisations.

Clearly the Lebedev family, which owns the Evening Standard and has shadowy links to both the KGB and Vladimir Putin, thinks it’s a smart move that will get the paper talked about and perhaps give it some much-needed sparkle. In those respects, they’ve pulled off an unlikely win.

But for anyone out there who regards an editor as being a heady mix of candid reporting, truthful analysis, fearless opposition, transparent agendas and some old-fashioned journalistic talent married with inspirational leadership, this is a truly miserable appointment.

Of course there are already some who are lining up to praise Osborne before he’s even taken his first 6am conference. Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail excuses the controversy by citing the fact that Labour MP Michael Foot once edited the paper. That was before being elected as an MP and the only 'extras' he busied himself with were a few dull book reviews.

Then, most incredibly, the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan – a former employee of the Lebedevs - tweeted enthusiastically about it being an incredible coup for his old bosses. This is the BBC, remember. Impartial, objective, scrutinising BBC.

It’s bad enough that politics today is filled with former journalists who think that having the talent to dash off a 1200-word opinion piece makes them an ideal candidate to be a politician. But to have politicians – serving politicians – control one of the levers of power that’s specifically designed to hold them to account, well that’s deeply troubling.

On the other hand, maybe George just fancies a few free tickets to the opera and the occasional lunch with the newspaper’s wonderful restaurant critic Fay Maschler. In which case, I say this – you lucky bugger.



Does This Prove The Media Has A Problem With Unconscious Bias?

I lost a £50 bet last week and I must say that I couldn’t be happier. I have Hyeonseo Lee to thank. Now 36, she’s a bestselling author, inspirational speaker and tireless campaigner for the plight of North Koreans. Aged 17 she made a daring escape from her home there, across China and finally into the welcoming arms of South Korea. More importantly, for my purposes, she’s a woman.

She’s also the latest interview subject for the Financial Times’s much-lauded Lunch With slot on Saturday, a section of the newspaper which I’ve spent some time looking at, sharing my research with the FT’s Editor Lionel Barber. He’s yet to respond to my tweets.

What I mentioned to him was my surprise that, from the past 100 weeks, Lee is only the 18th woman to be granted a space in that prestigious weekend slot, a page that goes to the heart of the FT’s unique identity. I placed a bet with another FT-watcher this week that the next subject would be another man – I’m glad I lost.

Anyway, those 18 include just two businesswomen – tech pioneer Susan Wojcicki and banker Ariane de Rothschild. Most of the others are connected to the media and arts worlds.

One can’t draw meaningful insight from taking the pulse of a single page in a huge six-day a week operation, yet it’s also a stark reminder that the FT is deliberately a reflection of its readers. Wealthy, metropolitan, successful, intelligent, tasteful, powerful…and male.

I’m not suggesting the FT is sexist. Of course it isn’t. An enlightened, equal opportunities employer it boasts excellent female journalists and columnists: Gillian Tett, Lucy Kellaway, Merryn Somerset Webb, Jancis Robinson, Kathleen Baird Murray, Sarah Gordon and many more

But if the FT is meant to represent the interests and characters of its readers, I wonder if perhaps it sometimes unconsciously apes the gender bias that so afflicts the financial and corporate worlds.

For instance, Helena Morrissey, the former CEO of Newton Investment Management and future board member of Legal & General, formed the 30% Club which has been at the forefront of rebalancing the deeply ingrained sexual discrepancy among Britain’s top companies. It campaigns for women to take up 30% of board positions at the country’s top firms.

She was once quoted in the FT thus: ‘A lot of progress has been made but I often feel very isolated. We haven’t got true inclusion until women feel they don’t have to be honorary men.’

In fact, the same newspaper recently castigated its smartly-suited audience when it revealed that, shockingly, just a sixth of senior executives at the largest listed British companies are women and that 52 FTSE 350 companies have no women on their executive committees. And when Emma Walmsley becomes GSK’s new CEO this year, she will be only the seventh woman running a FTSE 100 company.

So, still some work to be done there. Yet almost exactly the same percentage of women have been profiled in the Lunch With slot in a little under two years.

I know very few FT journalists personally but they and Mr Barber do a fantastic job – as a small business owner and consultant, it’s become an essential read of my day. I wonder though if they are aware of any unconscious bias that may exist there. After all, women have lunch too, and they don’t all work in the arts.

Because of their status, the FT and its editor should be – indeed often are - at the forefront of battling sexism and the city. However, I can’t help returning to that Helena Morrissey quote. Not about under-representation, we all agree about that. But about not being seen as ‘honorary men’. The FT – indeed all newspapers - can’t write about women just because they’re women. They need to be interesting, have achieved something and be deserving of their moment in the lunchtime spotlight.

Just a guess, but I’m pretty sure that such people represent more than one in six of the global population.




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