Or I could have titled this post lost in translation. How do you save face for your suppliers, make reparations to your customers and restore public confidence in you product all at once? That is what Mattel has been trying to do with one, all-encompassing apology. Alas, the meaning may have gotten diluted along the way. What if the issues are more than one? Now think about the context in which the issue is embedded -- like related incidents -- and you have a recipe for misunderstandings galore.
According to The Washington Post, Mattel and China Differ on Apology -- the company is thinking it's saying that faulty design was also at play (to the tune of 17.4 million units) so Chinese manufacturers were not to blame for those issues (compare with led-based paint issue on 2.2 million); the country was hearing a personal apology to senior Chinese officials due to design flows it committed, which was then taken to mean that the apology was for harming the reputation of Chinese firms.
China has been in the news a lot for product recalls recently and the country is facing a public relations crisis. Wanting to make the leap to accepting a blank apology without in turn apologizing to consumers about the products that were in fact found "shoddy and dangerous" (Sen. Charles E. Schumer) is part of a comprehensive crisis management and communications strategy. The country has long been a key player in the global economy, it is now experiencing growing pains of entering the public affairs arena in full force.
This post is not about who is right in the Mattel case. It is actually about when an apology is just the beginning and may not even be the right communication to use in the event of a crisis. In Knowledge@Wharton Can't Run, Can't Hide: New Rules of Engagement for Crisis Management Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer categorizes crisis into three groups:
- Customer service issues -- here you keep customers from giving up on the company and its promise.
- Failures of competence -- problems you should have prevented as they relate to your core promise.
- Screw ups not related to core competences -- incidents and accidents do happen.
This is also a translation issue. Is the company taking the appropriate steps as related to the type of crisis it is facing? An apology is appropriate in the first and second case, I gave it away when I listed the brand promise. The apology in both cases though is not enough -- it needs to be accompanied by a clear communication on the steps you are taking to remediate, restore, respond specifically to the crisis.
The third case is different. You may have done everything right and still be faced with a meltdown. Chris Gidez of Hill & Knowlton writes in the comment to the entry:
There are times when "crises" are caused as much by unrelated circumstances or media hype than by actual misconduct or failure. Yes, executives should express empathy and regret that a situation has caused problems or concern for customers or shareholders. But there is a distinction between an expression of regret and an apology. To prescribe an apology for every sort of crisis overlooks the legal implications of an apology and, more importantly, overshadows the need for the company to demonstrate by performance, rather than word. No amount of apologies or customer bills of rights will help jetBlue if they have another meltdown.
Are we overusing the apology? We should take good care of it as with anything else that gets hyped and overused it may lose efficacy... and meaning. Another commenter suggests using transparency as a guide -- getting communications right in this increasingly complex world where suppliers and company brands are so intertwined might not be child's play.
[Magnetic Letters, Flickr]