Saturday, September 22, 2007

Southwest's Apology Mocks Customer, Situation

Earlier this month, a Southwest Airlines employee pulled 23-year-old Kyla Ebbert aside to tell her she was dressed too provocatively to board a flight. Ebbert was kept off the plane until she adjusted her mini-skirt and was only allowed to board by agreeing to cover her skirt and legs with a blanket.

After widespread news and talk show coverage, Southwest Airlines issued an apology and reparations. Both strategies, however, were at best insincere—and, at worst, a mockery of the situation and demeaning to Ebbert as well as other women offended by the airline's actions.

In the apology released by Southwest, the airline states:

"From a Company who really loves PR, touché to you Kyla! Some have said we've gone from wearing our famous hot pants to having hot flashes at Southwest, but nothing could be further from the truth. As we both know, this story has great legs, but the true issue here is that you are a valued Customer, and you did not get an adequate apology. Kyla, we could have handled this better, and on behalf of Southwest Airlines, I am truly sorry…. It was never our intention to treat you unfairly and again, we apologize."

The insincerity continued when Southwest announced it was reducing fares as a gesture of reparations:

"The publicity caught us with our pants down, quite frankly. The story has such great legs, but we have an even better sense of humor, so we're going to jump out there and lower our fares to match the mini skirts we've all been hearing so much about."

Inappropriate phrases such as “has great legs,” “caught us with our pants down,” and “lower our fares to match the mini skirts” overshadow any attempt at contrition. Simply saying “we apologize” does not an apology make. Add to that the statement “we have an even better sense of humor” and it’s no wonder why Ebbert and her attorney felt slighted by the airline’s remarks.

In the end, the question is: why mock the situation or the woman’s feelings? Would it have been so difficult for the airline to simply say--with humility and remorse--that this situation could have been handled better, and that they are truly sorry for the feelings of embarrassment that the airline's actions and the situation have caused?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Mattel Apologizes to Chinese Manufacturers

Just weeks after recalling (and apologizing for the production of) unsafe toys, Mattel has issued an apology for implying that the problems were the fault of Chinese manufacturers.

This time the toy maker sent a top executive to personally take responsibility for the recalled products and to express regret for any harm or hurt feelings the incident has caused Chinese workers and officials.

"Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologizes personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys," said Thomas Debrowski, Mattel's executive vice president for worldwide operations.

Debrowski added: “We understand and appreciate deeply the issues that this has caused for the reputation of Chinese manufacturers."

The apology may be seen by some as a calculated move to simply avoid inflaming Chinese officials who can make it difficult for Mattel to produce their toys inexpensively (and, ultimately, hurt their earnings and stock price).

Regardless, the act of contrition marks an important gesture from a large U.S. producer to the Chinese people and factories that help it earn such high profits.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Mormon Church Apologizes for Massacre

As the Fancher-Baker wagon train passed through Utah in 1857, 120 men, women, and children in its party were brutally murdered by a group of men dressed in Native American clothing. New research shows that leaders of the local Mormon church were, in fact, responsible for recruiting Paiute Indians to participate--alongside Mormon militia members--in the horrific killings.

At the 150th anniversary memorial service held this month, Mormon Elder Henry B. Eyring, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, offered a groundbreaking statement of contrition and accountability for the church's role in the massacre.

"What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct," said Eyring. "We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here."

Although the statement was intended as an apology to descendants of the victims and survivors, it did not include the word “sorry” nor did it take full responsibility for the church’s role in carrying out (not just planning or recruiting people for) the massacre.

Historian Will Bagley felt the church avoided its culpability. ''I don't think shoving it off on local [Mormon] leadership is an apology,'' he said. ''Did you hear an 'I'm sorry?'” Priscilla Dickson, a descendant of one of the victims, added: ''Simply saying 'I'm sorry,' would go a long way.'"

After the ceremony, Richard Turley Jr., the church's managing director of family and church history, insisted that the statement was offered as an apology, adding: ''[The church] is deeply, deeply sorry. What happened here was horrific.''

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Lewis Offers Pseudo-Apology

Jerry Lewis released an apology for using an anti-gay slur during his annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In his statement, Lewis said:

"I made a joking comment to a member of my production staff. I apologize to anyone offended….That something like this would distract from the true purpose of the Telethon pains me deeply. The success of the show and all the good that will come of it shouldn't be lost because of one unfortunate word. I accept responsibility for what I said. There are no excuses. I am sorry."

Although Lewis says he accepts responsibility, the regret in his statement is related to the negative shadow cast on the telethon, as opposed to regretting the pain or hurt feelings he caused other people.

According to apology scholar Aaron Lazare, such failed or pseudo-apologies contain “a conditional acknowledgement of the offense” indicating that the offender “may not even believe an offense was committed.”

Moreover, Lewis’s statements “I made a joking comment” and “I apologize to anyone offended” sounds much like a dismissive “If you were hurt, I am sorry” type remark--implying that the root of the problem is the audience’s over-sensitivity, not the anti-gay remark itself.

Mattel Emphasizes Corrective Action

The largest manufacturer of children’s toys, Mattel, issued a voluntary recall of several toy lines due to small digestible magnets and indications of lead-based paint.

Although the official recall notices issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission are not intended as instances of apologies, they do include “remedy” sections that focus on corrective action.

Furthermore, in the video posted by Mattel on its website, chairman and chief executive officer Robert Eckert offers an apology, but focuses more on corrective action. In the video, he says:

“We apologize again to everyone affected and promise that we will continue to focus on ensuring the safety and quality of our toys.”

In addition, the video and the news release by Mattel both emphasize a “3-stage safety check” that will be used to ensure safety going forward.

The approach by Mattel highlights the need for future studies of the differences between official recall notices that offer accounts and corrective action (but not apologies) versus damage control recall strategies employed in new media and press releases that offer an obligatory “apology” while focusing mostly on the corrective action.