Monday, April 16, 2007

The Public Relations Value of an Apology

Do apologies work? In day-to-day life they usually do. When someone has said something offensive, and he or she apologizes, it is generally accepted without strings attached. But it takes courage to apologize. Not everyone has that courage.

OK. Now shift to the public sector, and specifically to the Don Imus incident. Imus called the extraordinary Rutgers women’s basketball team, “nappy-headed hos,” a particularly nasty sexist and racist slur. Shortly thereafter, in the face of enormous criticism, Imus apologized to an audience estimated at more than two million. Why was it not rapidly accepted without strings attached? Simply because there were strings attached, and the apology had geometric impact that carried way beyond the simple act itself.

Despite Imus’ apology, he was initially suspended for two weeks. Then major advertisers — which included American Express, Sprint Nextel, Staples, Procter & Gamble and General Motors Corp. — began to desert. They quite reasonably wished to dissociate themselves from the appearance of condoning racial slurs and the risk of alienating tens of millions of their consumers in today’s wired world. Then, shockingly, Imus was fired by CBS and MSNBC. The consumer-dependent networks also did not want to share Imus’s fall from grace.

Yet he apologized. He repeated his apology many times and in many venues, including the “Today Show”. He requested a meeting with the team and got it. But it was too late. His remarks were all over the place, online and offline, in broadcast and print media, ranging from Sports Illustrated to Harvey Fierstein in The New York Times. Did the apologies hold no weight?

Asked by Matt Lauer if he could clean up his act as he promised in an earlier apology, Imus said, "Well, perhaps I can't," and added, oddly, "I have a history of keeping my word."

My interpretation is that the mistake for which an apology is made can only be made once. If it is made twice (or more), the public relations value of the apology is completely diluted. This was not Imus’ first racial slur; many years ago the shock jock called Gwen Ifell — an African-American woman who is currently moderator and managing editor of PBS’s "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” — a “cleaning lady”. And over the years there have been other such slurs against various minorities.

In addition to the “twice factor,” one needs to examine the environment in which Imus made theses remarks. With the rise of the internet has come the growing power of the individual, the value of the individual protest, the growing stature of minority and human rights and growing respect for the victim. In fact, Imus’ comment, in my opinion, radically boosted the stock of the team, even beyond where it was before. The team’s decision to hold a press conference on April 10, where various individuals expressed their feelings about Imus’s remarks further reduced his standing and credibility. Suddenly a photo of the team was on the front page of The New York Times. The media broadcast some interviews of former high profile guests who said no to future appearances on the show. The steam was rolling and the apology became an empty promise.

Yes, this was a victory for human rights and respect for women and minorities. In our country differences should command respect. Was the punishment out of whack with the crime? Was firing Imus over the top? I don’t know. But indeed it was an example of how some nasty remarks destroyed an empire, if you will, and mushroomed into a bomb that could have had shareholder impact. reports "Imus in the Morning" generated about $20 million in revenue last year — about one percent of CBS Radio division's total. The networks decided that Imus was costing them more than they could afford to lose. They decided to stop the steamroller. Goodbye revenues. Goodbye apology. Goodbye Imus.

Technorati Tags: apologies, Don Imus, Rutgers women’s basketball team, nappy-headed hos, American Express, Sprint Nextel, Staples, Proctor & Gamble, General Motors, CBS, MSNBC, Today Show, Harvey Fierstein, The New York Times, Matt Lauer, Gwen Ifell, PBS, Washington Week, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Imus in the Morning, public relations, communications, business


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