The right way to make a mistake

Oh, how I feel for New Media Strategies these days.

Just when I thought most of the rumble about their employee’s Twitter error and their subsequent loss of a major client (Chrysler) was beginning to die down, here comes another article this week — by Stuart Elliott, no less — about the debacle, published in the New York Times.

Well, they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  And I do believe you can use even a very negative situation and try to turn it to your advantage, or at least mitigate the damage, with smart PR.  Curious to see how they were responding, I clicked through to their blog, which was linked in the article.

Pete Snyder, New Media Strategies CEO, offered this brief statement on the blog:

New Media Strategies regrets this unfortunate incident.  It certainly doesn’t accurately reflect the overall high-quality work we have produced for Chrysler.  We respect their decision and will work with them to ensure an effective transition of this business going forward.

Now call me old-school, but I don’t exactly call that an apology.  I think the challenge for New Media Strategies is responding appropriately to a mistake.  After all, we are talking about a tremendously successful company.  They probably don’t have much experience making colossal mistakes.  Now, me, I wouldn’t have that problem. I have a long history of making mistakes, and apologizing for them 🙂

To digress for a moment, let me confess one of my more egregious PR errors.  Just to show that everybody makes mistakes, and learns from them, particularly myself.

Before there was Google or Wikipedia, I was an intern at Wolf Trap, knocking out press releases and maintaining media lists and clippings the old-fashioned way.  I had just sent a press release about an upcoming performance by a Blues musician.  The phone rang: it was for me and it was Eve Zibart from The Washington Post.  Did my pulse ever quicken!  This is when she covered entertainment, and we lived and died by the placements we got in the Post.  But my excitement soon turned to dismay.  She wanted to inform me, she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm (probably the legitimate result of working for years with PR flacks like me at the time) how I could make a mistake in the press release about this performer.  It was a big one, but I can’t remember.  I got a date wrong or the spelling of his name; something like that.  I was flustered; I apologized and thanked her for pointing out my mistake.  But she was not finished.  Do you not know that this person is the father of the genre, blah, blah blah.  To my credit, she was a little acid about it.  But, you know, she had a point: it was my job to get it right.  So, I got huffy, then, and said, in my most prissy, Southern way “Well, now you’ve not only told me about my mistake, but you’ve made me feel stupid, as well.  Is there anything else I can do for you today?” and she replied, just as huffily, that no, that would do, and we rang off.

And I fumed for about 2.5 seconds.

Then I panicked.  I had offended EVE ZIBART. Of THE WASHINGTON POST.  What was I thinking?  In my self-recriminating woe, I saw my PR career going down in flames.  All day I expected my boss to call me in the office to explain myself, or worse, fire me.  But nothing came of it, after all, except my personal resolve to keep my temper in check next time.

How different those days were from today!  Imagine if I had tweeted that retort instead; what the fall-out would have been for me, and possibly also for Wolf Trap, whose staff had been so good to me.

So, I do feel sorry for young PR professionals, for whom the pressure must be so much greater, while they are still learning the ropes. When we seasoned professionals were cutting our teeth in agencies — banging out press releases and photo captions on IBM Selectrics — we made mistakes, sure, but the impact was not so great. We got chewed out by our bosses and cried in the restrooms, but we did not lose clients.  Our missteps were not reported in The New York Times.  How do you bounce back from something like that?

So, to get back to New Media Strategies, I don’t have experience handling national accounts, or running a big agency.  But I do know how to apologize.  Here’s how I would have handled it if Chrysler were my account, and one of my employees had published that tweet.

1. I would own it, and apologize for it.

First of all, this employee and I would be on the first plane to Detroit.  Publicly, I would apologize on behalf of my employee, and my company, and would take responsibility for it.  I felt their statement about regretting an incident was unsatisfyingly vague.  I would apologize not only to Chrysler, but also to the online community for the publishing of the offensive term used, and also for insulting the people of Detroit, and their driving abilities.

2. I would explain my plan for ensuring that this mistake not occur again.

This could be achieved in a number of ways.  For example, I might announce that the entire company would undergo sensitivity training, and/or communications training.  I might hire some seasoned communicators to mentor the predominantly young staff in communications basics.  Perhaps I would subsidize the expenses for any employee who sought accreditation from PRSA or IABC.  I might even go so far as to monitor all personal social media accounts by staff for a probationary period — plenty of companies do this, routinely.

3. I would announce how I was going to make it right.

You cannot undo mistakes, but you can learn from them, and you can make amends.  In this case, there are lots of creative and impactful ways you can make amends, while possibly also achieving not only forgiveness, but restoration of credibility with existing and future clients, and maybe even a little positive publicity, in the bargain.

This would demand serious resources, of course, perhaps 10% of the projected annual revenue they would have obtained had they retained the client.   I think that budget would be about right.  Then it could be dedicated to make-it-right projects, such as

  • Completing a year’s worth of pro bono services for Detroit area nonprofits, particularly if they are supported by the ex-client.
  • Build good will by making sure the Washington office engages in a significant and meaningful community project, or other form of support, if they have not already done so (to help build positive publicity, again).
  • Sending the employee to work in Detroit.  Should the employee have been fired?  Well, it was appropriate,  yes, but what problem did it really solve?  What if, instead, they had invested in training the employee, providing mentoring and counseling if needed?  Then, station the offending employee in Detroit for a year, as a condition of his employment, so he could come to appreciate the city and culture.  I mean, this must have been a responsible and trusted employee at one time if they had allowed him to handle a major client like that.  Maybe have this employee work on pro bono work on behalf of the agency.  Put him on probation from posting or engaging in any social media work, other than training others for pro bono projects, for six months.
  • Creating a YouTube video with the chief executive and employees apologizing and talking about what they have done and are going to do so that it doesn’t happen again.  This is really going out on a limb, but with the right production values and sincerity, it could work.  It’s kind of a BP approach, I guess.
  • Spending some time in Detroit.  Have the CEO meet with the local PR leaders (PRSA, IABC), maybe even be a guest speaker on what happened and how New Media Strategies will make it right (because we are all learning from this mistake).
  • Making the rounds to the Mayor’s office, etc. with the intention of making a big donation to a local nonprofit.
  • Creating a one-time scholarship for Detroit communications students.
  • Hiring and housing four Detroit communication students in Washington for a summer internship with New Media Strategies.
  • Becoming a gold sponsor of the Detroit PRSA.

I mean, I am brainstorming here.  I admit these are really lavish responses.  I’m not a crisis communications expert (I would hire one immediately, if this happened to my company!)

The point is, there are all kinds of ways you could show that you are genuinely sorry.  Are these extreme measures?  Perhaps they could be construed as such.  Some crisis communications experts say there are times when it’s best to let things die and not do or say too much.  The trouble is, does anything in social media really die?  I don’t think a gesture is too grand if it is delivered well and with sincerity.

Making mistakes is part of life, and part of working.  So is learning from the mistakes, and making up for them, which in my mind, is the right way to make mistake.

What would you do, in their place?  What would you recommend?

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About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a public relations and marketing consultant, and owns Fletcher Prince (www.FletcherPrince.com). Follow Mary on Twitter @FletcherPrince.

Posted on March 18, 2011, in Twitter Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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