A recent apology from McDonald’s elicited a chorus of sighs from some PR professionals.
In a radio ad, the company playfully suggested that petting a pit bull is “risky” behavior. A pit bull advocacy group called out McDonald’s, and the fast feeder issued this tweet: “We apologize for running a local ad insensitive in its mention of pit bulls. We didn't mean to offend anyone and the ad is being pulled.”
Several comments on a PR Daily story
about the incident made light of the situation. “Wow, you'd think [McDonald’s] just burnt down an orphanage,” wrote commenter PR Pat
. “Thank goodness for all these [politically incorrect] comments, it keeps PR folks employed.”
Pit bulls, as opponents of the ad noted, are an unfairly maligned breed because of the misinformation that ads (such as the one from McDonald’s) spread.
But that’s not the point. On any given day, a brand, celebrity, or politician is apologizing for something—be it big or small, fiendishly offensive or mildly disconcerting. In recent weeks, Nike apologized
for the nickname of a new shoe, an event promoter expressed contrition over a tasteless comment
, and Oprah said she was sorry
for asking Nielsen box homes to watch her network—to name a few.
It’s all too much, says Bill Maher. In an Op-Ed in The New York Times
this week, the comedian and HBO host (and former star of “Politically Incorrect,” it should be noted) urged Americans to “please stop apologizing.”
“When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?” He writes.
Maher calls for an amnesty “on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront.” He wants this Sunday to be the National Day of No Outrage. “One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.”
Many PR professionals can relate. After all, they’re the ones—along with customer service reps—on the front lines of a PR disaster. And they’re usually issuing the apologies (or at least writing them), whether the PR department is fueling the decision or carrying water for the lawyers.
So, what’s with the “apology mania,” as one communications professor dubbed it?
It seems there are a number of factors at play, social media being one of them.
“I think a major driver of ‘apology mania’ is simply the rise of social media and the empowerment of the public,” said Matt Ragas, an assistant professor in the college of communication at DePaul University. “Corporations, politicians, celebrities, you name it, are increasingly concerned—and often rightfully so—that an incident or grievance will go viral and be greatly magnified through social media and, in turn, through traditional media.”
Brands and politicians are burned constantly on social media sites, whether due to their own missteps (an offensive tweet, for instance) or because of an offline incident that gains momentum on Twitter or Facebook. For example, a top aide to Mitt Romney compared the candidate’s campaign platform to an Etch A Sketch
on CNN, and that off-handed comment turned into a full-blown crisis once it became a trending topic on Twitter.
Issuing a timely, sincere, and well-worded mea culpa can squelch a potential PR firestorm, even if it seems like a minor hiccup at first.
But it’s not social media alone that’s fueled the rash of apologies. There’s also the matter of diminished public trust for corporations. Veteran PR professional Fraser Seitel pointed to the high-profile scandals that have rocked corporate America.
“Sometimes, if you've crashed your cruise liner or finagled a mortgage customer or polluted the Gulf of Mexico or said something stupid that you regret in retrospect, you absolutely should
apologize,” he said.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer
, trust in business has declined to 2009 levels and CEOs are among the least credible spokespeople in the public’s eyes, behind only government officials.
This lack of trust is a potential reason for brands’ quickness to apologize and respond to consumer concerns, said Ragas.
The Public Relations Society of America’s take on the matter is that PR professionals shouldn’t apologize for saying they’re sorry on behalf of a client. It’s part of their job.
“PR professionals have a responsibility to make it clear that the company is sincere in its apology, accepts responsibility for its actions, and is doing everything within its power to ensure the issue that caused the offense does not happen again,” he said. “That exemplifies good, strategic communications and is not something that the PR profession should apologize for.”
What do you think? Do we apologize too much?
And if you’re waiting for a mea culpa
from Maher for his Op-Ed, don’t hold your breath.