Guest post from Bill Munn:
It’s important to get these phrases written down, before they become obsolete.
For a few decades now, the popularity of “spin,” with its tempting save-face claims, has elbowed out the use of a simple, honest apology. The reasons (read: excuses) for this are numerous and seemingly convincing:
· We can’t afford bad publicity.
· We need to frame this so fewer people are defamed.
· We are a litigious society. We can’t admit this; we’ll be sued.
· We should keep quiet or the media will drag us through the mud.
The list goes on.
But here’s a fact: things go wrong. Companies make blunders. People mess up. And some of those little oops moments create big ripples. The law of unintended consequences is constantly in effect.So the variable isn’t whether or not things will go wrong. It’s how you’ll deal with it when they do.
The Oops-I-Messed-Up Approach, Care of Seventh Generation Inc.My client, Seventh Generation, recently messed up—then handled it so beautifully that I now use them as the ultimate example of how to make a mistake, apologize, and move forward successfully.
When I asked them for the details, I learned a lot.The marketplace knows that the core vision of Seventh Generation is focused on providing environmentally sound products. What many don’t know is that their CEO, John Replogle, and his team and board are also dedicated to authenticity in their dealings with team members, customers, suppliers, everyone.
In October 2012, their baby wipes were selling great, largely through Amazon’s subscription program, which allows customers to set a schedule for automatically replenishing their supply. It’s a win-win for consumer and company alike—one that’s hugely dependent on customer loyalty.At the time, 70% of Seventh Generation’s baby wipe sales came from this program. But that was about to change.
When the company launched a new, improved wipe—one that looked different and cost more—they started shipping it to subscribers, higher price and all. Just one glitch: no one told the subscribers that. Oops.Customers responded fast and furiously. They called, wrote, complained on Amazon, and lit up social media. Sales started cliff diving, eventually hitting 50% of prior levels.
Now’s the time for spin, right? Wrong.When John Moorhead, the new ecommerce brand manager, learned that the company hadn’t communicated with customers on this matter, his first reaction was, “We need to apologize.”
Even though he was relatively new to the scene, Moorhead knew of the company’s commitment to transparency and understood its importance.The company launched a campaign of personal notes, phone calls, and responses to feedback, social media, and press. The message was simple: “We messed up, we’re sorry, and we’re fixing it as fast as we can."
Replogle himself publicly described the oversight as a mistake. That’s not a word you hear CEOs using often enough—but it’s a term that great leaders don’t shy away from for a minute.Within 12 months, sales had recovered, the team had learned much about how their customers viewed wipes, and the company had institutionalized the communication fix.
In short, from adversity and authenticity (and the corresponding apology) came advancement.Seventh Generation’s commitment to authenticity is so strong that communications manager Brandi Thomas actually has proud memories of this blunder: “As a PR person, I don't always get to call the Wall Street Journal to tell them I want to share one of our mistakes, so this story is one my favorites," she told me recently.
Let’s hear it for the power of a strong corporate vision.The Ugly Truth about Falsehood
Look alert the next time one of your advisers asks, “How are we going to spin this?”The term “spin” comes from the practice of spinning a yarn, telling a story, sharing fiction. In other words, something made up—false.
As a leader, I doubt you want false. But if those excuses—ahem—“reasons” for choosing spin still have you convinced, think about what’s ahead, namely, more spin and less credibility for your name.When the spin is exposed or called into doubt, you hit a slippery slope: add new information to assuage doubt, explain what you “technically” meant when you first said X, trip, slip, fall.
Once it gets messy enough, you throw your hands in the air and go for what I call a redirected apology, which is an apology that attempts to deflect all responsibility away from yourself, often onto the audience.In other words, it’s not an apology at all.
· “I’m sorry you misinterpreted my meaning.”
· “I apologize that my attempt to fix this backfired because of what he did.”
· “I’m sorry that you were offended by what I said.”
Maybe some people call that an apology. I call it a thinly veiled attempt at scapegoating.The more you do this, the more calloused your audience becomes. And the more your credibility crumbles.
The Solution & Its OutcomeLet’s go back to the beginning of all this. What if, at the moment you had realized you goofed up, you had ignored those advisers and started with “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to create confusion/frustration/etc., but I made a mistake. I hope you’ll forgive me, but forgiven or not, I’m going to see if it can be fixed. And I will personally report back to you.”
In those rare cases where we see leaders show honest contrition, without spin, the story tends to die very quickly. Or, better yet, it turns positive, reflecting on the honesty.And don’t forget that you can choose authenticity at anytime, even if you opted for spin early on and are already buried in your own mess. Better late than never.
Authenticity can be hard. Apologizing is humbling. But humility builds wisdom. That’s the simple, honest truth. No apology necessary.
Bill Munn is a leadership coach, speaker, former Dow 30 top executive, former university teacher of finance and economics, and author of the new book WHY MAKE EAGLES SWIM?: Embracing Natural Strengths In Leadership & Life. For more information visit www.BillMunnCoaching.com.