Spin vs. Sorry: How to Mess Up Well & Become Authentic


Guest post from Bill Munn:

“It
was my mistake. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”

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
Outcome

Let’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.