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  • Writer's pictureKahmile Reid

The Apology Approach

The “move fast and break things” philosophy advocated by Facebook’s (FB) CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, seems to be breaking them into the habit of apologizing.

Many months ago, I wrote an article for my website about this business of apologizing and taking personal responsibility on the heels of the FB and Cambridge Analytica (CA) data misuse scandal (titled Apologizers and Personal Responsibility). Recently, Facebook had another reason to apologize, a data breach where approximately 7 million users’ unpublished photos were exposed to third-party apps. According to Facebook, the issue was fixed on September 25, 2018.

In Apologizers and Personal Responsibility, I noted that the public has an endless capacity to forgive when they sense sincerity and concern; a fact that companies have noted and capitalized on. Think about it, we tend to be more understanding and forgiving of someone who says “I messed up, I’m sorry, I’ll fix it”.

In the FB and CA data misuse scandal they took the route of apology. They took out full-page ads bearing the words: ‘We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can't, we don't deserve it.' This time around FB apologized on a blog, simply by saying, “We’re sorry this happened”. They explained that when app users grant access to photos, the service should only grant access to photos shared on FB timelines, but some third-party apps went further.

Historically, most crisis are moments of opportunity or decision-making turning points in a person’s or company’s life. But this is a really bad time for FB as they have not fully recovered from the Cambridge Analytica scandal or the accusation that they failed to prevent “Russian use of the site to meddle in US 2016 election”.

A company’s ability to successfully manage reputational risk is essential to its survival. These include, its ability to control, respond and mitigate meaningful damage to their credibility. Two ideas are central to the issue of crisis communication: accountability and an organization’s ability to meet stakeholders’ expectations. Once this expectation has been compromised, this means a risk has manifested.

Be that as it may, all industries have nuances of which they are fully aware. Pharmaceutical companies face the risk of customers getting ill from their products, car makers face the risk of mechanical issues leading to recalls. In the case of FB, they collect and have access to billions of users’ information, data breaches are inevitable.

What is interesting is the fact that the apology and concession approaches have become prevalent reactions 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 was a mixture of apology, concession and corrective action; Samsung offered apologies for the Galaxy Note 7 recall. They all approached the crises in language customers can appreciate: understanding and empathy.

There will be a loss during the crises, but subsequent success is dependent on whether a corporate entity shows understanding and empathy during the crisis.

Whether or not Facebook is truly empathetic remains to be seen. However, two things are clear to me: the first is that FB is really testing the public’s capacity to forgive and the other is that over the years apology has become the approach of choice for auto, finance and the tech industry.

At some time during any PR practitioner’s career, a crisis will face their organization. Whether it’s an employee saying something inappropriate on social media, a director being accused of misconduct, or a data breach. Whatever the crisis turns out to be, at least one will require an apology.

All things considered, the “move fast and break things” approach requires even more crisis management as the risk of a crisis is more likely for untested emerging business models. The unfortunate thing is that FB and other tech companies have to learn their lessons as well as apologize on the world’s stage.


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