Why buying forgiveness doesn’t work

Samsung, Under Armour and Deutsch Bank responded to crises by printing apology ads in major publications. This communicator says the tactic is a ‘Brand Aid,’ not good PR.

Several large companies have taken out expensive ads apologizing for bad behavior.

Over the last year, Samsung, Under Armour and Deutsche Bank have all issued full-page mea culpas in prestigious publications. Reasons include missteps by a spokesperson, an attempt to control the narrative and choosing to avoid a social media dialogue with consumers.

Though one-way communication might seem like a good short-term solution, long-term brand perception shows otherwise.

In late 2016, Samsung recalled its defective Galaxy Note 7 phones. The company ran a full-page apology letter, signed by its chief executive, inThe Wall Street Journal, New York Times and The Washington Post.

Samsung seemed sincere and appropriately contrite, but consumer confidence remains shaken. A Branding Brand survey of 1,000 U.S. Samsung phone owners revealed that 40 percent would not buy another phone from the company.

In Under Armour’s case, the CNBC interview in which Kevin Plank voiced his support for President Donald Trump deflected attention from negative fourth-quarter earnings and a pending shareholder lawsuit.

The timing was suspicious, and Under Armour’s apology ad in The Baltimore Sun felt teed up and ready to go. The Under Armour “crisis” came off like a planned business tactic to divert attention from the company’s problems.

Finger-pointing is a no-go

When the U.S. Justice Department imposed a $7.2 billion settlement on Deustche Bank

for selling toxic mortgage-backed securities, the bank’s apology ad dodged responsibility for its board’s legacy of poor decision-making.

The ad, signed only by the new chief executive, blamed the bank’s misdeeds on the “misconduct of a few,” expressed regret that “the conduct of the bank didn’t follow our standards” and complained that “these legacy issues not only cost us money, but also our reputation and trust.”

Essentially, the letter passed the proverbial buck to the previous chief and “a few” bad apples. Moreover, Deutsche Bank positioned company misdeeds as human error, stating, “Wherever human beings work there will always be mistakes.”

Deutsche Bank appeared more concerned with brand perception than with its role in the financial crisis—or the impact on shareholders.

If PR pros were consulted on Deutsche Bank’s apology ad, they would have known that news media outlets would probably not print that corporate sound bite. Left to their own devices and without proper PR counsel, executives are more likely to create the narrative they want, rather than one that will resonate with the public.

The issue with corporate apologies

Is the corporate letter of apology a sustainable approach, or a wet “Brand Aid” that just won’t stick? Brand managers are drawn to this tactic, but consumers might not be as forgiving of the next crisis.

It’s better for brand managers to take their punches from members of the news media early on and redeem themselves with consumers later—through a coordinated PR, social media and advertising campaign.

People want accountability, and they expect an organization to take its lumps in news reports. There must be some level of responsibility on the part of the organization at fault.

If consumers are loyal enough to your brand, they eventually will forgive—but if you deploy a one-way communications strategy, it’s harder for them to forget. Brand managers should instead open a dialogue.

If you attempt an ad apology for your organization, remember the old saying: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

You don’t get a third iteration of a shame campaign. Once you are perceived as an organization that repeatedly defaults to, “We’re sorry, now let’s move on,” people will start to lose confidence in your brand.

Lisa Beck is a communications intern at Epic PR Group.

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