OPINION: How (not) to apologise: A lesson from Pepsi, United and Sean Spicer

Three recent outrages have illustrated how attempted clarifications can sometimes make a situation even worse..

OPINION: How (not) to apologise: A lesson from Pepsi, United and Sean Spicer

Screenshot: Pepsi / YouTube

Even in the deeply divided outrage culture of 2017, three recent high-profile faux pas have attracted almost universal scorn.

The controversies in question arose for very different reasons. Last week, Pepsi executives were forced to pull an ad featuring Kendall Jenner, which co-opted imagery from recent protest movements in the US. The ad had been criticised as being tone-deaf and wildly misjudged.

United Airlines also came under fire this week after videos emerged showing a passenger being forcibly removed from a plane.

And only last night, the White House Press Secretary (again) became the subject of mockery and anger after bumbling remarks that appeared to downplay Adolf Hitler’s use of chemical weapons.

These were all separate controversies of varying levels of severity, and in an ideal world none of them would have happened in the first place. The official responses, however, can teach us all a thing or two about the humble art of the apology - and indeed how careless or highly corporate language can make an already bad situation even worse.

Pepsi

It’s rare that the left and right can come together to condemn the same thing (albeit for different reasons), but that’s what happened with the almost farcically misjudged Pepsi advertisement released last week.

There’s plenty to pick apart here. The generic placards urging demonstrators to embrace ‘Peace’ and to ‘Join the Conversation’ are hopelessly inane, for example. But it’s the image of Ms Jenner managing to calm tense scenes by providing a tough looking riot officer with a can of cola that was particularly easy to denounce.

In the wake of massive protests over US police violence in recent years, it would be hard to come up with a less appropriate image. Not only that, but it represented a clear attempt by a massive corporation to commodify iconic images both recent (notably the photo of demonstrator Ieshia Evans confronting riot police at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge) and historical.

Such appropriation is nothing new, of course, but this was a particularly glaring example of the practice. Bernice King - the youngest child of Martin Luther King - even weighed in on the silliness:

Misreading or at very least underestimating the mood around the ad, the company initially doubled down, saying: “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony. We think this is an important message to convey.”

As the social media outrage continued, however, Pepsi finally relented and issued an apologetic statement:

One of the most retweeted responses to the message sums up one of the problems: “Why are you apologising to Kendall Jenner?” While she certainly deserves some sort of apology from the company for involving her in the ad, she did choose to participate in the campaign. Perhaps a more specific, public note acknowledging the groups and victims the ad most directly co-opts would have been more appropriate than this overly cautious one.

At least the company did tweet Bernice King directly, saying: “We at Pepsi believe in the legacy of Dr. King & meant absolutely no disrespect to him & others who fight for justice.” Credit is also due for pulling the ad, even if a more prompt response could have mitigated some of the bad press.

The official Pepsi Twitter account has been notably silent ever since issuing the apology. The company has obviously decided to try to just quietly ride out the storm. Which they’ll almost certainly manage to do, especially since another company was about to cause an even more unfortunate public relations catastrophe…

United

Anyone who has been on the Internet this week will have struggled to avoid the furore over the passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky.

There’s some degree of uncertainty over the exact sequence of events, not helped by a somewhat conflicting series of statements by the company itself. What appears to have happened: A number of off-duty crew members needed seats on a fully-boarded flight. After failing to secure volunteers, the airline picked passengers at random to remove from the plane. One man refused to leave, and airport security chose to forcibly remove him from the plane.

In scenes captured on video and widely shared online, the man was dragged from his seat. He apparently hit his head off an armrest in the process. Later footage showed the passenger dazed and with a bloody face.

The United Airlines terminal on display at O'Hare International Airport. Picture by: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

The outrage over the incident intensified following United’s initial statements over the matter. “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked,” the company said in a pair tweets. “After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate”.

The Washington Post, however, later reported that a spokesperson for the airline backed off the claims of overbooking, and instead suggested the passengers were asked to leave to accommodate off-duty crew.

The first statement from United CEO Oscar Munoz was an unfortunate case study in corporate cautiousness:

“I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers” is a line that illustrates a definite misunderstanding of the angry response to the incident. It was the treatment of the passenger that propelled this from being a minor controversy to a global scandal, and to not acknowledge that directly was undoubtedly a misstep. Some allowances can be made for the uncertainty over the exact details of what took place, but nonetheless as a statement it simply did not go far enough.

Munoz’ letter to United staff, which was published by US media, did not help matters: it appeared - inadvertently or otherwise - to place much of the blame on the passenger for not cooperating with the ‘denied boarding’ (ignoring the fact he had already been boarded).

As the outrage continued, the calls for a United boycott intensified, and the airline’s stocks started to drop (no better way to attract a strong response from a multi-national corporation). Munoz eventually offered up a full public apology for his airline’s role in the incident:

The airline - which had already been the subject of recent controversy - has plenty of work to do in order to rehabilitate its image following the incident (not that airlines have ever been the most beloved companies in the first place). But looking back at the immediate responses to the incident, it should not have taken multiple public statements to get a clear, definitive apology and pledge for action.

One should not always give into the mob’s thirst for blood, but undoubtedly United could have responded faster and more comprehensively to what was clearly an unacceptable incident.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded to the United controversy yesterday, observing: "It was an unfortunate incident, clearly, when you watch the video. It is troubling to see how that was handled." Spicer, of course, made headlines himself over the last 24 hours...

Sean Spicer

Ever since his furious opening gambit towards the White House press corps (not even three months ago), Sean Spicer has attracted the sort of scrutiny few press secretaries ‘enjoy’. However, even by the standards of an administration that has had to battle many controversies (major and minor), Spicer’s most recent faux pas was very unfortunate indeed.

In his daily press briefing, Spicer faced questions about the US response to last week’s deadly chemical attacks in Syria. The press secretary observed: “We didn't use chemical weapons in World War II. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Given that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used gas chambers to murder millions of Jewish people, this was an unfortunate and inaccurate comparison to make. When asked to clarify the remarks, however, Spicer only offered a bumbling doubling down of the comments (while acknowledging the ‘Holocaust centres’ in World War 2):

By the time the press briefing ended, the remarks had already gone viral. Spicer hastily issued a further clarification to the media, insisting he was ‘not trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust’:

The use of ‘however’ and the preceding sentence is what complicates and undermines this statement. Rather than acknowledging that the comparison was misguided, Spicer again attempts to justify his initial comments.

The Anne Frank Centre, meanwhile, became one of the most prominent organisations to hit out at Spicer, accusing him of ‘Holocaust denial’ and noting the unfortunate coincidence of the comments being made during the Jewish holiday of Passover:

As more and more media outlets picked up on the story, Spicer eventually apologised during an appearance on Fox News. He explained: "Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust for which, frankly, there's no comparison. Obviously, that's not what I wanted to do and especially during this week, I regret using that term.

"I apologise and hope that we continue to focus on the President's decisive action that he took to deal with the situation in Syria,” he added.

Like in the other cases mentioned above, credit is due that an apology ultimately arrived - but it is deeply regrettable that it took several clarifications to get that point. Even (generously) allowing for the the ‘on the spot’ nature of a press briefing, Spicer distancing himself from what was very clearly a mistake should have come more immediately than it did.

The art of the apology

Few could deny that the three incidents mentioned above deserved the outrage they deserved. Whether it was a case of a corporation dramatically misjudging a situation or a White House press secretary’s inadvertent downplaying of the Holocaust, these were absurd and unfortunate incidents that should never have happened.

Maybe there’s a few lessons to be learned for the future, however. When you or your organisation are clearly in the wrong, it’s best to apologise or clarify in a very clear, decisive way - and as soon as possible. While there’s no doubt countless people have to sign off on a company’s public statement about a controversy, impersonal or corporate speak can make a situation even worse. And barring extraordinary circumstances there should rarely be a need for multiple statements to say what should have been said in the first place.

Scandals will happen, some major or minor. Even after an apology is issued, the backlash will almost certainly continue. But there’s a lot to be said for a clear, earnest apology - and that’s a lesson Pepsi, United and Sean Spicer will surely have learned after their respective missteps.