An Apology for Better Conduct

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Well, both Tiger Woods and Akio Toyoda have apologized for their transgressions, thereby following — however belatedly and incompletely — the scripted advice from communications experts: Woods looked into the camera and admitted his sins, while Toyoda did the Japanese understatement thing and then had his staff take out full-page "open letters" to customers.

They did what they were supposed to do…only I wonder if they’re getting the wrong advice from the wrong people? Maybe these aren’t communications crises we’re witnessing, but rather reality crises; problems that aren’t fixable through the standard operating procedures of PR textbooks. The exhortations about the need for communications kinda sound like a musician telling a baseball team it could improve its game by playing better music between innings. If anything, I suspect there’s more to learn about the power of social media to change the way businesses function.

Here’s my thinking:

  • There’s something operationally wrong. Woods and Toyota have branding problems because they have business problems, and one could argue that their reputations accurately reflect those truths. Presuming that good PR can mitigate the experience of tumbling down an operational rabbit hole could be more of a distraction than a help.
  • It’s unclear who apologized, for what, to whom. Was it Tiger the personal brand or his business that apologized? Was it an apology for damaging the brand’s clients or the individuals who looked to him as a role model? Did Toyoda take personal responsibility for Toyota’s woes and, if so, how is that meaningful? 
  • Their infractions are evidence that they can’t fix things. Woods is in daily counseling and Toyoda will chair a special committee, so this begs the questions who is doing the fixing? It’s fine that Toyoda is sorry for his company’s behavior but the recent past has already evidenced his inability to do anything about it. It’s equally disingenuous to believe that Woods’ therapy will teach him to become a different person. So are they sorry because they are incompetent, powerless, or both?
  • You can’t be sorry for something if you don’t know what it is. The extent of Toyota’s operational woes is unknown as a succession of other shoes keep falling, and can’t we all bet that Woods has some other secrets that TMZ has yet to uncover? Typical PR canon says that culprits need to fall on their swords swiftly and completely, but how do you apologize for an unfolding story?
  • An apology isn’t a solution. Brand theology requires that we look at business in terms of personal relationships, and the advent of social media has made this seem even more sensible. It’s not. People have relationships with other people, not businesses; what companies say and do is the substance and prompt for conversation, not the object or a participant therewith. 

Ultimately, do these businesses want people talking about what they say or what they do? There’s no effective way to talk your way out of a business crisis anymore, and any advice that suggests an Act of Apology is anything more than part kabuki theater, part self-immolation, and part cheap stunt is working off an outdated game plan. Deeds are the lingua franca of our networked, real-time world, and on that front we have little more than static promises of "we’ll get better" that were surely recommended by the priciest crisis PR gurus Woods and Toyota could buy. Whatever it means.

This is where the real power of social media can play a role.

Enough people come into contact with the Woods or Toyota brands to provide pretty much real-time reporting on how they’re behaving. I bet there are great "inside" sources of info just waiting to be heard. Imagine if Tiger had announced to the faux press conference last week that he wanted people to post, tweet, upload, and otherwise track his behavior, through which he intended to show his better ways?

It would be even more compelling if Toyota had skipped the marketingspeak blather of its glossy TV spots and instead created its own social networks to collect and narrate its progress in improving and guaranteeing safety and performance. 170,000 employees and dealers could have been encouraged to communicate about how they’re making the company better, just for starters. Consumers could have been invited to participate, thereby learning more about the business as they restored their trust in the brand. The crisis could have been the catalyst for true transparency.

Woods should have made amends privately with his wife, and Toyoda should have launched an external blue-ribbon panel, an 800 number for employees to share insights, and a host of other actions. 

Being sorry is so 20th Century.

Image source: kenjonbro

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