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  • Writer's pictureKahmile Reid

Apologisers and Personal Responsibility

The public has an endless capacity to forgive when they sense sincerity and concern; corporations have noted this and have rightly capitalized on it.

Think about it, we tend to be more understanding and are more open to forgiveness if a friend says “I messed up, I’m sorry, I’ll fix this”.

Facebook, like many corporate entities before them, has taken the crisis management route of apology with a hint of mortification. This is evident in their full-page ads bearing the words: ‘We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can't, we don't deserve it.'

Facebook had a decision to make, they could either take full responsibility in the Cambridge Analytica (CA) Scandal, or they could have assigned blame to CA. They chose to do the grown-up thing. They get a few points for that.

Is it too late to say sorry...

Historically, most crisis are moments of opportunity or decision-making turning points in a person’s or company’s life.

The axis on which an organisation turns is its ability to successfully manage reputational risk, that is, its ability to control, respond and mitigate meaningful damage to their credibility. Central to the issue of crisis communication are: accountability and; an organisation’s ability to meet stakeholders’ expectations. Once this expectation has been jeopardised, this means a risk has manifested. Because organisations exist in a jungle of possible crises, there is no scientific way to predict the source of the next crisis.

Be that as it may, all industries have nuances of which they are fully aware. Food companies face the risk of customers getting ill from their food, airlines face the risk of mechanical issues causing tragedy by way of a crash. In the case of FB, they collect and have access to billions of users’ information, it was only a matter of time before there was a data breach.

Most recently Grindr, dating site for the LGBTQ community, violated the trust of their users by sharing extremely personal information with a third party. They have since taken corrective action telling their users they would stop. But that may be of little comfort to users who share their HIV status with the dating site. This latest scandal is still unfolding, their 3.3 million users worldwide may abandon the site over the next few months, but then again, they may not, based on the quick corrective action taken by Grindr.

In an academic setting it is widely advocated that all companies have a crisis management plan in place and simulations be carried out at least annually. Did FB have such a plan, and was an apology tour form a part of the strategy to regain public trust? Or were they copying VW’s reaction to the Emissions Test Cheating Scandal? Recall that their CEO at the time, Matthias Muller, went on an apology tour to win back the trust of consumers, he was quoted numerous times saying: “it’s not only our cars we have to fix. We have to repair our credibility too”.

What is interesting is the fact that the apology and concession approaches have become prevalent reaction to crises. Volkswagen was very quick to respond to the emission test cheating crisis and received much media coverage when they did so; their approach of choice was apology, concession and corrective action; similarly Samsung offered apologies for the Galaxy Note 7 recall. They all approached the crises in language customers can appreciate: understanding and empathy.

There will, according to communication experts like Harlan Loeb, be a loss during the crises, but subsequent success is a dependent variable on whether a corporate entity shows understanding and empathy during the crisis.

Whether or not Facebook and these past apologisers are truly empathetic remains to be seen. What is clear however is the fact that over the years apology has become the approach of choice for auto, finance and the tech industries.



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