Thursday, February 10, 2011

Apology Lessons From The Groupon & Kenneth Cole Debacle

Flickr Creative Commons/runran
We all mess up from time to time. We make mistakes – whether it’s in our personal relationships or our work. From an early age, most of us are taught the rules behind apologies – you should only say sorry when you really mean it and saying you are sorry means you won’t repeat the same mistake.

This week was an interesting one as far as apologies are concerned. First, Kenneth Cole angered people on Twitter by relating their new spring collection to the situation in Egypt. Soon after, Groupon’s Super Bowl ads offended people for appearing insensitive to serious issues in Tibet and elsewhere. (All this was topped off by the NFL and Jerry Jones apologizing for 400 fans not getting seats at the Sunday Super Bowl.)

Though Kenneth Cole posted a slightly more extended apology on the company’s Facebook page, they initially tweeted this reaction: “Re Egypt tweet: we weren't intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment –KC”

Groupon’s CEO fared no better as his apology, delivered in the form of a letter, was considered both defensive and, in essence, a non-apology.

Which brings me to the question, what’s the right way to apologize, especially in crisis situations? From a public relations standpoint, I think three things are essential when issuing an apology:

1. Timing
With even small issues snowballing quickly online, timing is a critical element in offering an apology. The fear of legal liabilities is usually the biggest reason for remaining silent. But silence can often be seen as arrogance or even indifference to the situation and issuing an apology can help diffuse the situation and prevent greater damage.

2. Saying it like you mean it
This sounds obvious but it can be difficult to be in the shoes of the person tasked with delivering an apology -- blame it on ego and our tendency to be defensive. But in a crisis, nothing is worse than a half-baked or insincere apology. To say it like you mean it, your apology should at least acknowledge and take some responsibility for the mistake and express regret, if not offer a way to rectify the situation.

3. How the apology is delivered and who delivers it
When a crisis breaks out, people turn to online social media channels to discuss, vent out and pick it apart. It’s always a good idea to first issue an apology using the same channel (and then over other channels as well.) If the crisis broke out over a tweet, tweet an apology. The 140-character limit can make it difficult but you can always post an extended apology later, as Kenneth Cole did on their Facebook page.

Who delivers the apology matters a great deal too, especially when people are outraged, offended and slighted. It’s usually a good idea for the CEO or some other top-ranking executive to deliver the apology to make people feel that the company has taken the incident seriously and values its customers. (At least, Groupon and Kenneth Cole both got this right, with the apology being delivered by their respective CEOs.)

What do you think makes for a good apology (and how did KC and Groupon fare?) Are there any situations where apologizing may not be the best option from a PR perspective? I would love to know your thoughts.


  1. Great analysis, Farida and I like your three points. I guess if I'd add anything, it'd be to fix whatever was wrong. Broken product? Make good? Groupon? Donate more? Kenneth Cole? Man, I don't even know. That was outrageous!

  2. Steven Ramirez, Beyond the ArcFebruary 20, 2011 at 5:07 AM

    Thanks for posting, you've laid out several good principles for apology communications. I'd like to contribute one additional thought. Writing a sincere apology in the voice of the brand can be a real challenge. Your brand shapes the way the public perceives your message. If you don't stay consistent with your brand, you increase the risk that your apology won't come across as sincere.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting, Frank. True. Apologies must include a promise to make up for the mistake or rectify the error in some way. Relating the events in Egypt to something as inane as a new spring collection was definitely in very poor taste.

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, Steven. Good point - it's important to echo the voice of the brand - especially during a crisis.


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