Even viewed from a distance on Twitter, business news has developed its own subgenre of macabre spectacle: the disgrace of the corporate goon. It’s 2019, the Theranos documentary has come and gone, but not a day passes without a new tale of executive melodrama. We look on with amusement at their berserk 2 AM Twitter rants; we stare dumbfounded at the Bond villain who got away with it; we gape at the inhuman labor practices lurking beneath the peppy Instagram travel start-up. We speculate on the thought process which would lead a CEO to invest in a wave pool start-up as his company implodes and delight in their fictionalized unraveling on HBO.
Stocks are down, media is transfixed, Congress has launched an investigation, cancellation hashtags are viral. Everything is, in other words, bad. If you, a goblin CEO, are hellbent on crawling out of this mess with, at worst, a $500 million exit package, then it’s time to emerge from the c-suite and get in front of a microphone. You may now be asking yourself: How do humans apologize? We called in some crisis management specialists to advise.
The Bait and Switch
“Blatant distraction is an unsuccessful tactic,” Lindsey Carnett, CEO and president of Marketing Maven, told Gizmodo. “For example, if Popeyes started donating to a children’s cancer fund and making announcements about this to distract consumers from the fact that people were getting seriously injured at their restaurants due to the chicken sandwich craze rather than acknowledging the bad behavior that is happening it and taking responsibility by issuing an apology or proposing a solution, discipline or a change in policy, consumers would see right through that distraction tactic and event call them out for it via social media, going as far as to cancel them on the internet.”
—YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, mid-apology 10 days after Vox host Carlos Maza tweeted evidence that a right-wing YouTube vlogger had been making homophobic attacks against him for years. The company decided to demonetize the channel but not to remove it. Meanwhile, YouTube updated its logo with a rainbow to honor Pride month.
The Art of the Memo
“You can stand next to facts all day long, and I understand that,” Jason Sherman, President of Sherman Communications observes. “But it will come off as tone-deaf and insensitive.”
—Rev CEO Jason Chicola in a lengthy memo explaining the Rev.com grading system to workers who’d seen massive pay cuts, adding that their “profit margin is the same”
“The worst of all is when a company says ‘no comment,’ which the public typically equates as admitting fault but without an apology,” Lindsey Carnett, CEO & President of Marketing Maven said, “which is why every company should have a crisis communications plan in place to have the team to quickly draft and approve an apology when the time comes.”
—Adam Neumann, October 2019, after walking out of the burning WeWork building with $1.7 billion
Enough Blame to Go Around
“Always avoid issuing a half-apology with an ‘if/then’ approach that places the burden on the offended person rather than the offender – ‘If you were offended by X, then we are sorry,’” a PR representative from Motion told us. “Additionally, never use the word ‘but’ to qualify your apology with a disclaimer or share the blame with another party. Offering no excuse and taking full responsibility, as well as pledging specific action to ensure the mistake never happens again, are key elements of an effective apology.”
—Now-former Juul CEO Kevin Burns, July 11, 2019, on CNBC addressing parents several months into a battle with the FDA over the teen vaping epidemic
Tweet and See What Happens
“I think any type of apology that is taking place needs to be genuine and the tone of that message should be a tone that represents the person is being sincere,” Andrew Schetter, director of client services at digital marketing agency Webimax, told Gizmodo. “The biggest mistake anyone can make is to try to fake the apology … it will only make matters worse.”
—Elon Musk, July 2018, after calling a cave diver who helped to rescue 12 children and their soccer coach a “pedo guy”
—Elon Musk, September 2019, a court filing in the defamation case brought by aforementioned cave diver
You Are an Apology Wizard
“The key is clarity and direction,” Josh Weiss told Gizmodo. “The statement should clearly and simply state what the company is focused on during the crisis, and what the company will do after the initial crisis is over. This will give you time to then better understand the issue, allowing you to apologize one time for the overall mistake after you actually know what you’re apologizing for. Apologizing too early means you might need to apologize numerous times, and could make you look like you don’t understand what’s happening during a crisis you’re supposed to be resolving.”
—Jack Dorsey, February 2019, in one of numerous incoherent interviews on fixing all of Twitter
Silence the Minions
Are you suffering the fallout after your former staffers talked to the Verge about your inhumane labor practices and emotional abuse at your luggage company? Don’t prove them right.
—Away CEO Steph Korey, December 6, apologizing one day after The Verge detailed Away’s practices of berating employees, monitoring their communication, and pushing them to work until 3 a.m. and on holidays
—Away managers, December 6, instructing employees not to discuss the Verge report hours before Steph Korey’s tweet
“The absence of that simple word [sorry] is pretty apparent and ringing, isn’t it?” Sherman observed. “We were all raised with certain manners. I think on a global stage with a multi-billion dollar company–with something that’s on every one of our devices, and it’s infiltrated like every element of our lives–it still comes down to: what did your mom and dad teach you?”
—Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, after being criticized for calling the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi a “mistake” that has been taken “seriously” and can be “forgiven.”
Eh, They’ll Buy the Damn Product Anyway
“When you get a yes man, you get nowhere,” Sherman said.
—Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, on censoring the Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj to appease the Saudi government