Why is it that nowadays, more than ever, it seems that we have an increasing propensity to refuse to say these three words, “I am sorry”. I think the world truly underestimates the power of these important words. CEOs, in times of crisis management, seem increasingly reluctant to use them. This is where we, as PR professionals, come in.
We’ve all seen many crises, but can you remember when was the last time you heard a CEO apologize for something that the company had done, or failed to do, when faced with a crisis? The latest example and probably the most outrageous one, is United Airlines.
Remember that one? We all witnessed a million times over, on cable news and social media, the violent removal of a passenger from a plane. What a horrific sight! Now, let’s take a step back and look at it from a strategic perspective. If we were asked to counsel the CEO on this troubling incident, you can be certain that our recommendation would have been to immediately, frankly and sincerely, (within the hour at most) issue a compassionate statement using these words. “Like those of you who witnessed this shocking video, I am sorry that this incident involving one of our passengers occurred.”
Saying this doesn’t exonerate the passenger should he have been unruly. This simply says that we are distressed by what happened, and why shouldn’t we be? What happened was ugly whether United Airlines like it or not. However, the message that this would convey to the world is that at United Airlines, we truly care. The statement could have been concluded by saying “you have my word that we will investigate the incident fully”. Had they issued this statement, United Airlines would have controlled the message, conveyed compassion, and at the end of the day, minimized the negative impact on its brand and on its bottom-line as well.
Consumers base their purchasing decisions not only with their brains, but increasingly with their hearts. Instead United Airlines, to their detriment, was slow to react, never truly apologized, and allowed others to control the message.
CEOs need to be quick and respond with humility when faced with a crisis. Like people, corporations are imperfect. It’s smart business to use these three words: “I am sorry.”
Written by: Jean-Claude Torchia