January 15, 2021

The Art of Apology; What We Can Learn From KFC About Correcting Mistakes

Earlier this year, just as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, fast-food chain KFC ran a new advertising campaign depicting diners licking their fingers – a nod to their strapline “Finger Lickin’ Good”.

The ad sparked a backlash with more than 150 people complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority. It was widely deemed to be “inappropriate” at a time when “wash your hands” is the mantra of the day. ‘Finger Lickin’ is out, hand sanitizer is in.

KFC’s new campaign shows them moving away, or at least pausing, the iconic 64-year-old slogan. New images of advertising posters and packaging blur the ‘finger lickin’, saying: “That thing we always say? Ignore it. For now.”

Responding in times of crisis is not new for KFC – think back to when they infamously ran out of chicken – but by addressing adversity head on they turned this into a success. Other brands have not done so well to weather the recent storms.

The ability to pivot quickly after an error has never been more important. As companies navigate an unprecedented crisis, and rules and moods shift quickly, mistakes are bound to be made. Consumers are also more politically and socially conscious than ever, and not afraid of calling brands out for sharing generic, inauthentic or hypocritical sentiments. Making a mistake is one thing – but the way you respond to it can be the difference between brand success and brand ‘canceled’.

Here are our top tips on how to manage the fine art of apology:

1. If you’re going to apologize, do it right (and do it quickly)!

When things go wrong, sorry may be the hardest word – but it won’t help if it doesn’t have any substance. If you think the matter could result in litigation, regulatory or criminal investigation, then include internal or external lawyers in the conversation to advise on the legal aspects involved. If you decide the circumstances warrant a public apology, it should be genuine and include all the components of a good apology. Acknowledge a mistake was made, express regret and place onus on the company to do better, rather than being defensive or blaming those offended. Define what you are apologizing for and make it specific to the context of what happened. An apology which is injected with humour, like KFC, is more likely to be received positively (provided it is appropriate). But most of all you need to act quickly – the reputational impact of getting it wrong could be enormous.

2. Be Authentic

It is easy to have a knee jerk reaction to criticism, but any inauthentic statements can quickly be debunked and make the situation spiral out of control. Customers want to see authenticity, rather than a publicity stunt. JetBlue is a good example of providing an authentic response to a crisis. Valentine’s Day 2007 caused a PR storm when JetBlue incorrectly predicted the weather which led to passengers being stranded on the runway for hours, and thousands left flightless. Founder and CEO, David Neeleman, issued a YouTube video offering a sincere heartfelt apology and plan of action for customers affected. The video put a face to the company and reminded customers of its mission statement. He also introduced the JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Rights to outline customer compensation for delays in the future, showing the company was willing to take decisive action. Reflecting your values and ensuring both customer and employees are at the heart of what you say will help build trust. If the topic is one of a sensitive nature, make sure the messaging reflects and validates the concerns raised. Think about whose perspective you need to incorporate into your apology and messages to maintain thoughtfulness and sincerity.

3. Learn, Listen and Engage

Make sure you understand what it is you are apologizing for as there may be a gap between what you feel you’ve done wrong versus what people perceive you have done wrong. Reflect this understanding in your messages and show you are taking a proactive approach to these concerns or social issues. Take Starbucks for example, it recently faced significant backlash after consumers learned the retailer would not allow employees to wear “Black Lives Matter” attire, contradicting previous statements made by the company on antiracism and inclusion. After acknowledging the hypocrisy, Starbucks announced it would manufacture and distribute 250,000 “Black Lives Matter” shirts to its employees. Companies are still (sort of) human, admit if you have got something wrong in the past and consider how you plan to change it. Think about providing follow-up, both internally and externally, as you learn, evolve, and implement changes.

4. Offer to make amends

Once you have expressed remorse and owned up to your mistakes, consider if or how to make it up to those who have been wronged. The bigger the mistake, the greater the groveling. There is no general rule of thumb on how to make amends, and the best way is to tailor it to your specific situation, customers and employees. A recent example from Walt Disney illustrates one way this can be done. A California elementary school was fined $250 for violating copyright laws when it screened The Lion King at a fundraiser last year, despite the event only raising $800. After this sparked social media outrage, Bob Igor, Walt Disney’s CEO, tweeted an apology and said he would personally make a donation to the school. Although technically the school was violating the law, the way in which Disney dealt with the situation by acknowledging a (moral) mistake had been made on their part, rather than digging in its heels, helped smooth over the situation.

5. Use Actions Not Words

A heartfelt message promising to be better in the future won’t get very far unless you have something to back this up. Your customers and employees will want to be able to see viable steps and actions. If you say you are going to improve your diversity, explain how. Social media and the mass of information on companies online make it very easy for historic mistakes to be dredged up and go viral. This has resulted in several awkward callouts of hypocrisy recently (we won’t name names). If you are apologizing for a past indiscretion, how have you learnt from your mistakes? Put your money where your mouth is. Don’t promise something you never plan to deliver as this will quickly become evident.

So, what’s next?

The one predictability of 2020 seems to be the complete unpredictability of what may happen next. Closing your eyes and praying for next year probably won’t help. Horizon scanning, i.e. thinking ahead and mapping threats now in order to anticipate issues in the future, can help build brand resilience in order to ensure you can weather whatever comes your way. This can include undertaking a digital audit of your online platforms and presence, for example, which will highlight your online reputation and pinpoint any potential risks. Put yourself in the shoes of a journalist or competitor – what could be out there? Look at the skeletons in your closet and decide whether there is something you need to address, before it comes tumbling out. Think about what you can do now to identify mistakes, anticipate issues and correct, where possible, to improve your reputational resilience in the future.

Kirsten Mansfield

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