Last week it was Pepsi. This week it’s United Airlines. Both giants of their industries made what appear to be major gaffes in the minds of the public. I don’t know if it’s the proliferation of trial lawyers in the country or what, but we are afraid of a common and sincere apology in our society today.
Personally I don’t believe Pepsi erred other than in backing down to a bullying group of social activists. I liked their initial reaction in trying to explain to the unwilling that their message was a good one. But that fell on deaf ears and just brought on more social media buzz. That’s sad because the social media buzz is being interpreted like a group of yellow-shirted library thugs at a County Commission meeting- like their presence is representative of far larger numbers in the general population and that just isn’t the case. But Pepsi, in a vast overreaction, caved and apologized to the BLM thugs and anyone else who wanted to be offended by socially active soft drinks. It came off as insincere. That’s because it was. Clearly Pepsi had believed in its message enough to spend who knows how much in production and then launch the campaign- for a day- on line. Apparently Mad Men were not involved as the Coca-Cola 1971 “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ad was far better at the message than Pepsi was.
As for United Airlines, their initial apology was geared more toward the flying public and their employees than their passenger who was manhandled by security personnel and injured in the process. That initial apology was for having to re-accommodate (talk about an industry invented, self serving word- the only accommodation was for the airlines benefit) the passengers with a promise to investigate the circumstances. So far my favorite quote floating on social media about the incident is: United Airlines- We Put the Hospital in Hospitality!
The second apology came Tuesday after a Monday night email to employees apologizing to the employees for the belligerent passenger and praising the action of employees in the incident. Naturally, that second apology came off as insincere. It’s because it was, but it was essential and the lawyers, by this time, had gotten involved!
Why are these CEO types n0ot getting it when it comes to PR? Why, as successful as they are, don’t they connect with the public at large? Maybe they are isolated in their offices and board rooms. Maybe they don’t have regular interaction with real people. Maybe they are too influenced by the attorneys who recognize apologies as confessions and pathways to large monetary awards. But, when the situation is so bad, as in the case with United, just maybe a sincere apology recognizing that it could go a long way toward mitigating damages would have been the appropriate response.
At any rate, I’ll go back to the 1990 United Airlines commercial. A businessman told his staff an old friend had fired them because they had lost touch with their customers. He handed the staff United tickets to get in touch with their customers. It seems United could take a little bit of its own advice!