Monday, August 06, 2007

Is Sorry a Strategy?

I could not have said it better. I credit the following to Robyn Greenspan, Senior Editor of Execunet, an online networking and career site for senior executives. The links, however, are my own interpolation.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is the latest apologist for his role as an anonymous Internet user who posted negative messages about competitor Wild Oats on financial stock forums. It may seem like a MySpace prank at first — an impulsive action from a high schooler who didn't get a prom date — but Mackey routinely posted on these message boards for eight years.

Mackey's actions were certainly opaque, and his apology seems to represent transparency. But with a recent wave of public "sorries" from visible figures — Paris Hilton, David Neeleman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson and a growing list of politicians — these megawatt mea culpas may no longer suffice. In many cases, the apology seems less about reprehensible actions and more about "I'm sorry I got caught."

While the antics of drunken celebrities, corrupt politicians and greedy corporate executives (Enron, Tyco, etc.) may not surprise us — and may sometimes be expected — Mackey's actions are more disappointing. Whole Foods, like Neeleman's JetBlue, are supposed to be the good guys — socially conscious, friendly, customer-centric companies that care about their employees, the earth and doing what's right.

They both issued very public apologies, but Neeleman's and Mackey's downfalls are decidedly different. The former faced a customer service debacle while the latter deliberately deceived stakeholders; Neeleman absorbed the blame for issues where he may not have been directly responsible and Mackey's consistently poor judgment put his company — and especially its brand — in jeopardy.

There are many lessons in Mackey's story: the myth of Internet anonymity, the economic influence of user-generated content, managing bad PR and repairing brand reputation, the psychology of forgiveness, etc. But the most important is about the interrelationship between leadership and trust.

Technorati Tags: Robyn Greenspan, Execunet, Whole Foods, John Mackey, apology, JetBlue, Wild Oats, Paris Hilton, David Neeleman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson, business, communications, public relations


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