How To Communicate Bad News Professionally
3 case studies on what not to do when saying sorry
What goes up, must come down.
Inevitably, we all do something wrong that we have to apologize for and make right. We’re only human after all. Ideally, we learn from our mistakes and don’t repeat them — that’s about the best we can hope for.
The same truth applies to our businesses and careers. Eventually, our organizations and industry influencers — navigated by imperfect humans — will fumble and let us down. A sincere apology and effort to do better is owed.
Yet, so many companies and influencers struggle to own up to wrongdoing. Like children, our instinct is to hide what we’ve done wrong to escape punishment. The truth always comes out. The situation is often made worse by our efforts to minimize the consequence.
When it comes to saying sorry, a 2014 cultural case study from the Canadian National Post claimed:
Americans do not say it, the British do not mean it, and the Canadians overdo it.
When it’s time to issue a mea culpa, there isn’t a better teacher of what not to do than the public relations blunders made by today’s leading brands.
These are major news stories — many you will likely remember hearing about — examined through a communications lens to demonstrate how bad news could, and should, have been said better.
1. Don’t bury an admission of guilt — a lesson from Google
Google announced it was phasing out Google Plus, their social network developed to compete with Facebook, in October 2018. The company posted a 1,500-word blog post to share the news. The post begins by describing how hard Google works to protect its users’ privacy. Readers had to continue reading to find any significant admission of wrongdoing — about one quarter into the write-up.
In March 2018, Google discovered a security vulnerability that potentially exposed the private information of up to 500,000 Google Plus users — and they didn’t tell anyone about it until eight months later.
In its coverage of the coverup, TechCrunch revealed, “The company decided against informing the public because it would lead to ‘us coming into the spotlight alongside or even instead of Facebook despite having stayed under the radar throughout the Cambridge Analytica scandal,’ according to an internal memo.”
Not only had personal data of a half a million consumers been compromised, but Google also kept it a secret. And within the poorly written announcement of this news was Google’s admission that they were looking out for their own best interest instead of consumers.
As Homer Simpson would say, “D’oh!”
The lesson: Immediately disclose bad news to those impacted instead of waiting until the timing is better for your self-interests.
Additionally, open your statement with the most important news at the beginning — don’t precede it with praise of what you’re doing well.
2. Don’t delay in apologizing to the victim — a study of United Airlines flight 3411
In April 2017, United Airlines was spotlighted in one of the now most well-known news stories to make headlines in the past two years. Video footage of an airline passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight went viral, and all eyes were on the brand to make it right.
This incident cost the brand an estimated $700 million (value lost from decreased stock price), according to an infographic from the GetCRM blog that lists the costs associated with the many crises that brands have experienced in the past decade.
Instead of immediately apologizing to the customer — a doctor who was literally dragged off of the plane against his will — the company issued a series of statements that danced around the horrific experience.
“We apologize for the overbook situation,” was the initial statement, followed by the CEO calling the episode “an upsetting event.” He apologized to the other passengers on the plane for the inconvenience, but again, did not acknowledge the wrongdoing to the victim. A letter he wrote to his staff was released after that, claiming that he stood by his employees but also suggesting that the passenger was acting “disruptive and belligerent.” Quickly, consumers threatened to boycott the airline and lawmakers were calling for an investigation.
It took four more apology efforts to begin clearing the air. The New York Times even chronicled a timeline of the apologies to showcase United Airlines’ missteps in properly atoning for the deed.
The lesson: Identify the victims of wrongdoing before issuing any statement, and apologize sincerely to them before any other messages are communicated.
3. Don’t excuse your partner in crime — examining Pepsi’s tone-deaf Kendall Jenner ad
Another example from April 2017 was when Pepsi unveiled a controversial ad campaign featuring model and TV personality, Kendall Jenner. In a nearly three minute video, the ad showcases Jenner watching and later joining what is depicted as a fun and cheerful street protest featuring a racially diverse cast. She then seemingly obtains a feel-good truce between the protesters and the police at the event by handing one of the officers a Pepsi.
The ad elicited outrage from activists accusing Pepsi of co-opting and trivializing real protest movements that dominated recent headlines — notably the Black Lives Matter movement, international Women’s Marches, and anti-Trump rallies that reflected our country’s state of unrest — to fuel more sales of soda.
Black Lives Matter protests have been especially intense, rooted in fury against police killings of unarmed black people. Protesters have faced tear gas, rubber bullets, and jail time for their participation — the polar opposite of the free-spirited tone the ad took.
Even Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., responded to the ad, saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”
In less than 24 hours, Pepsi smartly pulled the video from the internet and canceled the campaign before issuing a public apology. While most of it was appropriately targeted toward the consumers they affronted, the company also included a note of remorse to Jenner that, again, didn’t sit well with its audience.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding,” the company said in a statement. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
Social media backlash continued following Pepsi’s apology that included Jenner. The Washington Post published an article in which experts weighed in, calling the apology to the star-powered Jenner not only “misplaced,” given that she was paid and consented to participate, but also “sexist” and “infantilizing.”
The lesson: Regardless of whichever partner was complicit in the offense, either leave them out of your apology or issue a joint statement from the both of you. It isn’t your place to excuse them from something you both participated in.
Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them. — Bruce Lee
There are, of course, many more public PR crises to observe and learn from in 2019. Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft accidents, the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, and Jussie Smollett’s staged attack to name a few. Who knows what next year will bring.