In 2018 KFC in the UK ran out of chicken in about 800 of its 900 or so locations which was a major disappointment to those customers looking for their Mighty Bucket for One Meal and a huge embarrassment for the company. As might be expected the press had a lovely time mocking the company and this incident, caused by problems with the logistics chain after a change in suppliers, looked to be seriously devaluing the brand in a fiercely competitive market.
So how to deal with this? The standard PR response goes something on the lines of ‘we are really sorry’,’ we value our customers', 'lessons will be learned', 'we're working hard to make sure it never happens again' ….etc etc. A formulaic apology trotted out many times which- for all its effectiveness might as well be written on gossamer and thrown to the wind.
Wisely KFC didn’t do that. What they did do was take out a full-page ad in the London newspapers showing its standard KFC bucket but with the logo replaced with 'FCK', a brief explanation of what happened and a pledge to make sure it wouldn't happen again. By injecting some humour into the situation and admitting their fault straight away they went a long way towards restoring the damage that had been done.
So why do so many companies and organisations find it so hard to say 'sorry' or issue mealy mouthed 'apologies' written directly from the PR handbook?
Research data has analysed various types of apology made by organisations. Firstly there is what might be termed the 'basic apology' – 'We note that you've had a bad experience and we're sorry'. Then there's the enhanced version 'We note that you've had a bad experience and we're sorry. We'll try and make sure it doesn't happen again'. Finally there's the one that actually works 'We note that you've had a bad experience and we're sorry. We'll try and make sure it doesn't happen again. To make up for your bad experience here's a £5 voucher towards your next purchase.'
This is not being foolishly generous; what it's doing is helping to tie the customer in to future purchases. The customer recognises that the organisation means what it says because they have given the wronged customer something for nothing – something that cements the apology and makes it real. The customer feels heard and this encourages loyalty to the business. This lasts until there is a second or third bad experience with the same organisation by which time the customer is dissatisfied and any apology in this form adds insult to injury.
Clearly this works on a small scale but what about the major disaster when things go badly wrong on a larger scale – a KFC size event? Well a formulaic PR statement will simply not cut it – customers are too used to seeing these types of statement and, as there is no demonstration of a commitment to the apology, it fails to have any real effect.
Clearly it may not be possible or appropriate to give away a voucher or some other incentive, so it has to be a PR based effort. There are some approaches which have proven to be better than others.
Just say you're sorry.
Be unequivocal, sincere, truthful and clear. 'We messed up', 'We were wrong', 'We will do everything we can to correct this.' An apology that sounds like it was orchestrated by the PR team and cleared by the legal department is possibly worse than no apology at all. Admit the mistake and explain what happened clearly and without making excuses.
Using humour can work but it needs to be handled very carefully. If the apology looks as if the organisation is not taking matters seriously or the event that is being apologised for is a tragedy rather more serious than people not being able to get a KFC bucket then humour is definitely not appropriate.
Face the cameras.
This has to come from the top. It is not sufficient to delegate the task of issuing an apology for a major cock-up to some senior manager or the PR team. Instead the highest-ranking manager, the CEO if necessary, should face the press and explain and apologise for what has happened.
People, customers, want to see that the organisation is taking it seriously and that the apology has meaning. The Metropolitan Police in London sent a senior officer round to apologise personally to a woman and her husband who had been stopped and searched in a rather brutal manner by officers who had stopped them because they were black and driving a BMW. They were, in fact, international athletes. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, also publicly apologised over the affair.
Do it now
This is the age of social media. News spreads on Twitter and similar sites with blistering speed and this is then picked up by the mainstream media. Organisations cannot afford to wait until they can formulate a considered response - even if they don't have all the facts they can say they are taking the situation seriously and will respond in more detail when they do. Get the apology in early and demonstrate commitment to solving the problem.
It's not about you.
Don't make excuses or try to justify what has happened. It went wrong – it may not be entirely your fault. Nobody cares – just fix it or apologise - preferably both. Customers will not react to self-serving justifications of what your organisation was trying to do or what let it down or why it failed – what they want is a demonstrable commitment to making good.
Promise to do better.
Make clear that what happened doesn't reflect the values of your organisation or its hard-working employees. Instead explain what the constructive measures going forward will ensure that this will prevent this from happening again.
In Scotland the Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood visited her holiday home in contravention of the COVID 19 lockdown rules. She was fired by Chief Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
When Dominic Cummings, senior advisor to Boris Johnson made a trip to Durham also in defiance of the lockdown rule Prime Minister Johnson defended and tried to justify his actions. He then allowed Cummings to hold a press conference at which he failed to apologise at all.
Subsequent research has shown that this sent a wrong message to the public and was a contributing factor to the ignoring of the lockdown rules in England by mostly younger people and encouraged the spread of the virus. The message that this sent to the public was 'If it's alright for him then it's alright for you' which was clearly not what was intended.
As the old cliché has it 'you never get a second chance to make a first impression.' There is one opportunity to get it right, to rescue the reputation of the organisation and build credibility. This is the first step to regaining the trust of customers and the public.
Why do some organisations find it so hard?
John Taylor is an author for accountingcpd. To see his courses, click here.