Does Saying “I Was Wrong” Help Repair the Brand?
For several years now, reputation risk has been among the top threats listed by company executives when they are asked what keeps them up at night. There are several reasons for this. The emergence of 24-hour news, the internet and social media have created a world where corporate snafus that would have been merely a one-day story in the paper into an ongoing PR nightmare. Similarly, advocacy groups are now much more evolved and can launch coordinated campaigns to encourage public outrage. But most of all, most companies simply have no idea how to repair their image after it’s tarnished.
There is no insurance that can fix the problem and even where coverage is available to fund a “PR swat team” to come to the rescue, the short-term damage is already done, and the brand will always be tied to the negative press. In the long term, the reputation smear may prove survivable, but it sure never seems that way in the initial hours, days, weeks and sometimes even months and years following the calamity.
In recent years, the most oft-repeated mantra for avoiding irreparable harm to the brand is to “get out in front of the story.” Basically, after a mishap occurs, be honest, transparent and don’t let your CEO wake up to be blind-sided with an unwanted Wall Street Journal headline. Tell the public that something went wrong and that you’re now doing everything in your power to fix the situation.
That certainly makes sense, and recent examples of companies who were criticized for their delayed response include Toyota, Massey Energy and BP. The fact that all three companies seemed to bury their heads in the sand — for years — when it came to safety issues still would have come out, but the instant backlash perhaps could have been different if the companies took charge of the situation sooner — at least with Toyota anyway. I’m not sure there is anything BP could have done differently in the first week or two that would have made people feel much differently about the oil giant than they do today.
But, in trying to be honest and transparent, should the company’s executives go so far as to say “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry”?
Logic says yes.
As journalist and author Kathryn Shultz pointed out today in a guest post on the New York Times‘ Freakonomics blog, however, those who have admitted the error of their ways have not always been greeted with forgiveness.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Earlier this year, former Assistant Education Secretary Diane Ravitch published The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which denounced a series of school reforms (including educational testing, school choice, charter schools, and No Child Left Behind) that she herself had advocated for years. When I interviewed Ravitch for Slate, the comments section lit up with the familiar charges: “Why is Diane Ravitch Making a Bundle Saying She Was Wrong All Along?” “Wow! Thanks Diane! It’s only taken you ten years to see the blindingly obvious.” “We’re supposed to be impressed by her contrition?”
And that is the central question: what are we supposed to do about the sincere contrition of those who err?
Schultz, who just wrote a whole book on the topic that looks interesting but I have yet to read called Being Wrong, says that the answer is a lot easier in our personal lives than it is in the public sphere. In our private lives — with relatives, friends or colleagues — the answer is usually forgiveness. People make mistakes and, often, when they are willing to admit and own up to their errors, they should be granted at least some level of reprieve.
But that courtesy is rarely extended to public officials (which is who she is really speaking about here) or corporate representatives (which is who I believe this concept may also apply to)/
When our public officials make mistakes, the costs (which are often not borne directly by them) can be horrifying. It seems reasonable to demand not just an acknowledgment of error but some effort at ameliorating the consequences. Sometimes, though, this is simply impossible. No one can bring back the war dead; no one can unspill the oil; no one can compensate a child for twelve years of bad schooling. All that truly contrite leaders can do in such a situation is work off their public debt the best way they know how – and live with the torments of their own conscience.
But are those torments real? Many people doubt it, and therefore find the idea of forgiveness galling. As one commenter observed after listening to a conversation about wrongness over at The Takeaway, “A lot of people’s admitting to being wrong is little more than a PR ploy. Public apologies do not impress me.” In the acid bath of cynicism that is contemporary American politics, it is all but impossible for public figures to convincingly establish their sincerity. And fair enough: sometimes, political changes of mind really are craven or self-interested or simply for show. But sometimes, presumably, they are not.
Ultimately, her short post doesn’t offer any concrete solutions. It certainly does present a good amount of evidence that, publicly, forgiveness — especially when the act leads to death or major destruction — is tough to come by. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is cited as a prime example.
Regardless, I have to believe that, in this day and age, corporate honesty and admission of guilt will better resonate with the public than anything else. But the alternative perspectives raised here sure do lead us to one indisputable conclusion: executives are right to be concerned with reputation risk.
When executives admit “I was wrong,” does it help the company’s reputation? Or does the public just see it as yet another insincere public relations memo?