How to deliver an effective apology in a crisis, which Braun and A-Rod need to do


With thanks for the inspiration to the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay, and in anticipation of 13 Major League Baseball players commenting on their performance enhancing drug suspensions, here is a guide to the correct way to apologize in a crisis.

And, seriously, read Gay’s hilarious satire of the typical MLB apology — gratefully sent inner-office on hard copy by our CEO Eric Mower. [As national newspapers once worth billions sell for $71 million and $250 million, the gesture is especially poignant.]

Putting Gay aside after the enjoyment, what does constitute a sincere and effective apology for someone like Ryan Braun, below, or Alex Rodriguez?

The gold standard for crisis action, effective apology and thereby transformative leadership, is Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke’s actions after the deaths of seven people in Chicago in 1982 after they ingested cyanide-laced Tylenol.

As Jia Lynn Yang reported in Fortune in 2007, Burke set the standard for modern crisis management.

While he could have tried to ride out the storm or simply reacted to the regional problem, he instead went on the offensive, launching both a recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules and a massive PR campaign to inform the public.

Cost of the recall? More than $100 million.

According to Wikipedia, while at the time of the scare the company’s market share collapsed from 35 percent to 8 percent, it rebounded in less than a year, a move credited to the company’s prompt and aggressive reaction. Later that year, it reintroduced capsules but in a new, triple-sealed package, coupled with heavy price promotions and within several years, Tylenol had become the most popular over-the-counter analgesic in the United States.

Apologies work.

Here are some guidelines.

Act promptly. A-Rod is trying to pretend it’s not true. He’s “appealing.” This might eke out a few more hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Yankees as he plays his first major league games of the season, but it will further diminish his credibility.

Never lie. Ryan Braun, as is always the case, took more criticism when he was suspended because he lied about it the last two years than for the original PED use. Everyone already knew he’d used PEDs. Just watch his denial news conference.

Be transparent. Hiding, pretending and generally trying to evade the reality everyone else sees clear as day just prolongs the crisis and worsens the end result. See Armstrong, Lance, 10 years of pretending reality was false. Stand up and tell people what they know or suspect.

Take the hit. For someone who strikes out as much as A-Rod, this is probably anathema. But stand up like a man or woman and state the obvious. I cheated. I lied. I stole. Take responsibility and pledge to do better going forward.

Here’s what A-Rod or the other 12 MLB suspended with him might want to say:

“I’m here today to apologize for my actions and I take full responsibility for them. I used performance enhancing drugs for X years. These included testosterone and other PEDs. I have no one to blame for this decision but myself. I was fully aware at the time that I was breaking the rules of baseball, a game that I sought to enhance in my career, but have instead mocked and damaged. I let greed, dishonesty and ego get in the way of the values my parents and family taught me, and which I work every day to pass on to my own children. I am ashamed. But I do not ask for your pity, nor for your forgiveness, unless I earn it in the future. You may hold me to this: I will take a substantial part of my baseball and related earnings and I will start or contribute to a foundation that helps young people avoid my path. I cannot change the past, but maybe I can change some futures for the better.”

Even Jason Gay might find that one hard to mock.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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