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June 30, 2014 Talking Points

GM’s problems offer a lesson in crisis communications

Andrea Obston

There are four steps any company dealing with a crisis should take:

1. Open mouth.

2. Remove foot.

3. Apologize for putting it there.

4. Begin the healing.

While these steps are truly the stuff of crisis communications 101, I am always amazed at how few companies and individuals practice them. Whether it's an oil spill, a data breach or forgetting your anniversary, “I'm sorry” is a great way to begin recovering from a mistake (even a big one).

A real apology opens the door to forgiveness. It tells folks you've learned something from your screw up. It lays the groundwork for moving forward. But, it won't work if you don't say it. Out loud. With conviction.

So many companies shy away from making apologies. They equate them with admissions of guilt. They fear they will open the door to lawsuits. But the truth is that apologies have enormous curative powers — in terms of rebuilding consumer trust and in defusing the kind of consumer anger that gives birth to lawsuits. Why? Because good apologies give credence to the suffering of the victims. They help them begin their own healing.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I watch General Motors grappling with its worst corporate disaster since it sought bankruptcy protection in 2009. The company has, so far, recalled 2.59 million cars with ignition problems that are linked to 13 deaths and many injuries. Its attorneys have signaled they intend to use the terms of GM's Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization as a legal defense to block claims for pre-2009 incidents. This might work as a legal tactic, but in terms of reputation rebuilding it's a bust.

This tactic displays a grotesque ignorance of the role of consumer trust in rebuilding a tattered reputation. When GM's new CEO Mary Barra chalked up these past errors to the culture of the “Old GM,” she made it clear that the “New GM” won't tolerate such things. Good. And when the company's own investigation came out, she referred to the results as “deeply troubling.” Also good. Especially when she said she would use the report's 90-plus recommendations to overhaul GM's culture and prevent similar issues in the future. These recommendations covered changes in the company's organizational structure, supplier interactions and communications with regulators. They also recommended ways to reshape the culture into one that makes people accountable for safety. Also good.

But I'm still waiting for an apology. GM has yet to exhibit either compassion for the victims or humility about what they did. Now, I understand it's not legally prudent to say “We're sorry we killed some people.” But aren't you sorry they died? If not, what the heck is wrong with you?

When GM is ready, I suggest they look to these guidelines to craft an apology:

• Acknowledge your mistakes (guided by the wisdom of your attorneys).

• Demonstrate real regret.

• Show you are taking honest responsibility for past offense (no matter which GM committed them).

• Explain what you've learned that will keep such things from happening again.

• Make changes to respond to the lessons you've learned.

Make sure you do not:

• Trivialize the incidents.

• Invent excuses.

• Point fingers.

• Demonstrate arrogance.

• Forget who was impacted.

• Overreach in your promises of reform.

• Demonstrate tone-deafness to the lessons.

A good apology shows humility and lack of hubris. It begins the healing and sets the stage for recovery. A good apology allows a company to move on, humbled by and mindful of its past transgressions. Most importantly a good apology can be the beginning of the end of a bad incident. It says, “We learned from our mistakes and we'll use them to improve.”

Need an example? Check out Melissa Harris-Perry's bone-deep, contrite and authentic apology for racially insensitive comments on her show in January. During the following broadcast, the MSNBC host offered a moving apology that concluded with this: “We're genuinely appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday's program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers.”

Andrea Obston is president of Andrea Obston Marketing Communications in Bloomfield.

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