How to Keep Selling While Saying You’re Sorry

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Default image

Hello, Corporate America? We have a little problem. No one seems to trust us anymore. According to the 2009 Edleman Trust Barometer, nearly two-thirds of the public (62%) have less trust in corporations than they did a year ago. To rub it in further, only 38% said they trust business to do what is right (a twenty percent plunge since last year, by the way), and a paltry 17% said they trust information coming from a company’s CEO. Yes, this is bad – very bad. But what is more disturbing is that these levels of trust are even lower than those Edelman measured in the wake of Enron, the dot-com bust, and Sept.11. And who can blame them - these people, this “public” whom we keep referring to? The media feeds us a steady diet of alarming business news and corporate horror stories that only serve to hammer more nails into the coffin of corporate trust. Just in the last couple of weeks, for instance, we have seen the horrendous tragedy unfold at the West Virginia coal mine of Massey Energy Company, where 29 people were killed in a blast on April 5 in the worst mining disaster in the United States in more than a quarter-century. According to federal records, Upper Big Branch mine was cited for more than 1,300 safety violations since 2005. Fifty citations came in the last month alone. You get the feeling that they weren’t all that concerned about worker safety. So, how should corporations respond to such negative publicity? Should they act more sorry? Ashamed? Appear empathetic to the victims and their families? Resolve to put human safety at the top of their strategic priorities, no matter the cost? Or should they just move on and expect everyone to get over it? With humans, you can usually gauge trust by looking in the eyes of the person in question to ascertain some level of sincerity. But it’s not so easy with a corporation, where you are more often dealing with PR consultants who are spinning position statements and media impressions. These days, it’s the corporate web site that becomes the public face of the company, and it is here that we can get a glimpse into the corporate soul to decipher their honesty. I decided to take a peek at Massey Energy’s web site to see just how they are handling this tragedy. Unfortunately, the corporate home page gives a confusing picture of just how sorry they might be feeling. A portion of text on the left is dedicated to a message for “The families who lost loved ones,” explaining how the company is sticking by the families while they “continue to determine the cause of this tragic explosion.” But your eyes are more immediately drawn to the other three-quarters of the page that is dominated at the top by a pretty scenic banner depicting “some of Appalachia’s most valuable resources,” and the ho-hum business-as-usual news flashes on the right, announcing “Careers”, “Recent Commercials” and “Corporate Snapshot.” I understand that business life must go on, but really, Massey Energy’s corporate web page may leave viewers wondering if these people really understand the gravity of what just happened. Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times did a fascinating and very entertaining piece a couple of weeks ago (just prior to the Upper Big Branch coal mine tragedy) called Trust Busting. In it, Heffernan reviews the various strategies corporations choose to deal with awkward moments on their most public face – their corporate website. She reviewed the likes of Toyota and baby stroller maker Maclaren, both of whom have also been dealing recently with safety faux-pas. She spanks Maclaren for coming off as arrogant and insincere in their response to massive recalls amid concerns that the hinges on their strollers occasionally severed children's fingertips.

“The Maclaren home page is dominated by a wide shot of adults, evidently employees of the company, in country-casual clothes posing on a green knoll before three knotty climbing trees. Not a stroller in sight…Over the heads of these “family members” — as the employees are known in the blurbs — are rotating banners that comprise a weird, Churchillian incantation. “For all those who trust us, we say we are grateful,” it starts, sensibly enough. But then the weirdness sets in:
“For all those who believe we saved a life, we say that is our ultimate reward.
“For all those who believe we have caused them pain, we say we are sorry.
“For all those who shun us, we say look around, check the facts, be objective.
“For everyone else we say, we strive for excellence and we all stand together to achieve it.”
Then the kicker, in italics: “And . . . for all those who copy us, we are delighted that our past inspires your future.”
Oh, come on. The classic insincere apology (“Those who believe we have caused them pain”) and the nonsense heroics about lifesaving and then the jab at competitors! Petulance and paranoia: only someone way too emotionally involved with Maclaren’s reputation — and not a corporate P.R. firm — could have made such a hash of damage control.”

Heffernan then goes on to chastise Toyota, who, after recalling millions of cars for their faulty accelerator pedals, appears to be a bit too happy on their corporate web page with Spring Sale-a-thon fever.

“Toyota wants to thank you with our biggest offers ever,” reads the home page. Thank me? Why? To the left of that declaration is an equally thrilling-seeming banner, this one red: “Recall Information: Get the Latest Updates Here.”
This “latest updates” phrasing, set against an image of a family cavorting on a beach near a minivan, makes the recall sound exciting and newsy. Shame is not in evidence. At Toyota, they offer all-wheel Sienna minivans, kites, white sand, recalls, blue skies and more! “Recalls” seem like part of the lifestyle. There’s a lesson in this: When you’re ashamed, don’t sulk. Get rowdy!

I know, I know - it's complicated. Especially when it comes to public relations. But is there a better way to keep selling while saying your sorry? Do you believe that corporations can still be trusted? Would you give a company the chance to win back your trust?