The "apology loophole"
When it comes to industry reputation in corporate America, healthcare consistently holds an unenviable position (read: lots of reputational baggage). At the low-end of the reputational spectrum, however, we have a frequent neighbor in the airline industry. And with the tragic incidents earlier this year, Boeing is now the industry’s “reputationally challenged” poster child.
Boeing is now working hard to rebuild its reputation. Per reporting from the NYT, they:
- Are holding “daily calls with carriers as well as meetings with pilots and flight attendants.”
- Sent the company’s top lobbyist to talk with the union representing flight attendants.
- Have been sharing frequent updates with the three U.S. airlines that fly 737 Max planes.
- Are planning to use pilots as the core spokespeople for a media & advertising campaign.
Like all reputational campaigns, Boeing’s success hinges on the validity of the product. In this case, that means proving the 737 Max is safe. David Calhoun, the lead independent director of Boeing’s board, acknowledged that fact. “There’s only one thing to do, and that’s to get a safe airplane back up in the sky. I can’t message my way into it.”
Boeing has another stumbling block: a meaningful apology.
The company’s CEO: “has not acknowledged that anything was wrong with the design of the 737 Max, saying that the design process followed standard procedures.”
The company’s top lobbyist: “kept reiterating that pilots were expected to be able to handle the conditions on both doomed flights.”
You know when you were a kid and your parents made you apologize for something you did? Perhaps you hypothetically bullied your little brother? But, instead of issuing a real apology, you said something like “I’m sorry you were hurt by what I did.” That’s what we call an “apology loophole” and – no surprise here – no one likes that kind of apology.
Let us be clear: we’re not equating Boeing or its actions and statements to that of a seven-year-old child. However, the undeniably human response that an incomplete apology elicits is similar. Until someone feels that you are sincerely sorry for what happened and ready to take responsibility, it’s nearly impossible to rebuild trust.
This story is a good reminder for communicators across all industries: PR can only take you so far. Even with great soundbites and a comprehensive rebuild campaign, a communications strategy is only as good as the concrete and meaningful company actions that support it.
Who wrote this? The managing editors of TWTW are Dana Davis, who was – for the record – a pretty nice big sister, and Randi Kahn, whose older brother is one of her best friends. Syneos Health Communications' Reputation & Risk Management Practice is a team of healthcare communications consultants, policy-shapers and crisis response specialists. We provide unique solutions to the evolving communications challenges in today’s healthcare industry, using evidence-based approaches to help our clients successfully navigate the most sensitive of situations.
Got thoughts? Contact Dana
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