3 Questions to Ask Before Apologizing

IMG_20150923_134511_554-1On Wednesday, Volkswagen announced that its CEO Dr. Martin Winterkorn has resigned. This came days after it was revealed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had discovered that the German automaker appears to have installed software in vehicles enabling them to fool emissions tests.

Winterkorn had admitted as much in a lengthy apology he gave earlier in the week. According to reports, the company had installed software in some vehicles that only activate specific emission control functions when the car senses it is getting an emissions test. It appears that the emission control functions were not used during normal operation of the vehicle.

The story came to light when the EPA ordered the carmaker to recall almost 500,000 cars that were said to have utilized the technology. Subsequently, Volkswagen will discontinue sales of its cars equipped with four-cylinder turbo diesel engines in the United States.

Because the use of this technology could have violated the U.S. Federal Clean Act, the company could be penalized “up to $37,500, or more than $18 billion,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

This was the context for Winterkorn’s apology, which didn’t appear to be enough to stave off calls for his removal:

“I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public. We will cooperate fully with the responsible agencies, with transparency and urgency, to clearly, openly, and completely establish all of the facts of this case. Volkswagen has ordered an external investigation of this matter.

We do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law.

The trust of our customers and the public is and continues to be our most important asset.

We at Volkswagen will do everything that must be done in order to re-establish the trust that so many people have placed in us, and we will do everything necessary in order to reverse the damage this has caused. This matter has first priority for me, personally, and for our entire Board of Management.”

Obviously, there are many factors beyond mere words that will drive events at Volkswagen in the coming weeks, months and years.   But for our purposes here, we can learn from the company’s seeming need to issue an apology so early in the process. With this in mind, if your organization is ever in a situation where an apology is under consideration, it is recommended that you ask yourself three questions.

1. What corrective actions are being taken?

In Volkswagen’s case, it will have a new CEO, and it is recalling a large number of vehicles. It is stopping the sales of certain vehicles in the U.S. And the company is cooperating with investigators.  On Friday, the company designated Matthias Müller, who was head of Porche, as the company’s new CEO.  These corrective actions are likely to help the company deal with a terrible situation going forward.

But the company cannot change the past. If the company has done what it’s accused of doing here it would have required time, money, people and resources. The one thing the company cannot correct is the record.

2. Will the apology be believed?

Because the company is being judged on a pattern of behavior in this case, and not just an isolated instance or an unexpected mistake, the very credibility of the company and its leadership is at stake. This raises questions about how the organization thinks, the way it operates, its core values and reputation. When that happens, the company’s institutional brand is in a precarious position, and an apology can only accomplish so much.

Aside from the serious legal and financial ramifications, this adds up to a crisis of credibility where the company is perceived to have intentionally violated a sacred trust between it and its stakeholders.

This is not to say the company should not apologize, but the worst thing any company can do is to build an apology around empty words and promises.

3. Is now the time to apologize?

Ultimately, timing is everything. If your organization gets out ahead and announces a series of corrective actions and apologizes, that apology is more likely to have some credibility. Or if the company waits until all of the dust settles and lays out a concrete plan of action that ensures that such malfeasance never occurs again, the accompanying apology may mean more.

But if your organization is exposed by a third party for doing something, or not doing something, and the facts are only now coming to light, the timing may not be good.

Certainly it is a time to communicate, to be transparent, and to let your stakeholders know you are committed to turning things around. But it could be best to apologize after you have a clear sense of the operating landscape and the impact of events on the company, its stakeholders and its ability to operate going forward.

Apologies in themselves almost never make a dent in a reputational crisis. They must be accompanied by corrective actions, a spirit of meaningful intent, and they must be delivered at the right time. In doing so, you can take the first step towards rebuilding any trust that may have been lost.

8 Spokesperson Critical Success Factors

shutterstock_116176801You’ve been tasked with speaking on behalf of your organization to the public. Maybe it’s the media, or maybe you’re going to speak at a community event or town hall-style meeting.

Regardless, there are two things you know: first, that there are so many uncontrollable variables that you never really know what you may be asked; second, once it starts, there is good potential that word-of-mouth, social media and possibly professional reporters in the audience will amplify and extend the life of your words.

With this in mind, the best way to eliminate or minimize the impact of factors beyond your control is to prepare. The following are eight critical success factors for powerful spokespersons:

  1. Media/audience analysis – Good preparation is always the starting point. Prepare an analysis that includes a profile of the reporter, publication or group of reporters that may be covering you. If it’s a public meeting, generate as best as possible, a profile of the audience and people who will be in attendance, what they care about, why they may be interested in listening to you, and most importantly, what they may want to tell you once they get there. This can be the basis for the other planning you will do.
  2. Anticipate the questions – Once you have a sense of what people in the room care about most, you can begin to anticipate the kinds of questions they may ask. Start by listing the questions you’d rather not have to answer, and then develop responses. Be thorough, plan for the worst and work toward the best. You may find that the reporter or audience may only ask a fraction of your questions, and they may ask a question or two that you didn’t consider, but this kind of preparation will go a long way towards giving you the confidence and comfort level you need.
  3. Develop key messages – The major difference between anticipating Q&A and your key messages is mostly one of size and focus. Your key messages must be more focused and condensed than a long list of all the questions you could receive. These key messages are the core themes and points you want to make in order to pre-emptively address the things your audience cares about. They should follow your larger communications strategy, helping you to achieve your communications objectives.
  4. Dress for success – Think about the venue, the time of day, the location, the audience’s culture, and the non-verbal message you want to send with your appearance. If you’re going to a county fair, don’t wear a suit, try jeans instead. But even in jeans, look sharp. If you will be at a Downtown club for a luncheon event, think about what the audience will be wearing. By working to blend you are eliminating a non-verbal barrier to communication. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes it’s necessary to make a statement that calls for a different appearance.   I remember a few analyst meetings I attended where the Harley Davidson senior management team wore leather jackets and some rather upscale casual clothes as they addressed a group of Wall Street execs in suits. Imagine a hotel ballroom filled with analysts in suits, sitting behind tables set-up classroom style. Then the speakers ride onto the platform in full chrome-plated volume on their Harleys. They made their point even before they began to speak.
  5. Don’t forget your voice – Too many average spokespersons don’t pay enough attention to how they sound when speaking to reporters or in the public.   By “voice” in this larger context, we also mean your words. Speak loud enough to be heard. If you have a microphone, use it and don’t turn away from it while you look to the side at your presentation screen and continue to speak. And avoid jargon and excessive use of acronyms in your comments. Keep it simple, relatable, and look at the people to whom you are speaking when you speak.
  6. Keep it short – While your larger remarks or interview may take some time, avoid rambling on specific points or topics. Broadcasters would characterize this as speaking in sound bites. These are 30- to 40-second comments or responses that have a clear beginning, middle and end, structured to deliver a key message and then stop. The best sound bites do not include qualifier words or long words. Simple words and memorable messages that get to the point.
  7. Be compassionate – This does not mean to fake it. Just the opposite. It means not to leave your human compassion and your own emotional investment in the topic at the doorstep. Incorporate your genuine interest in the issue, the audience and the subjects that are raised by reminding the reporter or your audience that everything you are discussing is very important to you on a personal and professional level.
  8. Rehearse – Never think you will be that effective if your plan is to “wing it.” I’ve seen some spokespersons say things like, “I’m always better if I improvise.” Or, “I sound fresher, more genuine and more spontaneous if I don’t rehearse.” They’re wrong.  The rehearsal process is not a memorization process. The goal of rehearsal is not to create a robotic spokesperson who never strays from script. The goal of rehearsing is to allow the spokesperson to truly master the subject matter, to internalize it, so that when the speaker gets in front of the media or the public, he or she can be more comfortable, flexible and spontaneous. A rehearsed speaker can better stay on message, not be surprised by certain questions that come up, and stay in the moment.

These critical success factors for powerful spokespersons, which represent a good deal of planning and preparation, can serve as a model for you to make sure you provide your audience with content that effectively addresses their most important issues and concerns.

Welcome to the New Online Home of O’Brien Communications!

It’s been long overdue, but it’s finally here, the new web site.Web Site Billboard - Deep Red New and Improved

From your perspective, the main thing is that now both my blog – PR, Pure & Simple – and the O’Brien Communications site are now on one platform, making it easier to access the information you may want.

From my standpoint, this means more adequately and accurately presenting O’Brien Communications’ brand and capabilities to you.

Since I started this business in 2001, I’ve always had a web site. I initially created one on my own computer and uploaded it to a somewhat unreliable host site. That led to a couple of instances where the servers were hacked and I had to rebuild.

Thanks to the pace of client work and other demands, at one point I found I didn’t have the time to keep approaching it that way, so I moved platforms, creating a Spartan site that I thought of as a temporary online placeholder of sorts until I could get a good site up and running. “Temporary” turned into years until enough was enough. I just had to make this site a priority.

There was a silver lining of sorts for me. By the time I created this site, technologies, tools and options have improved dramatically. So what I was able to build is a “responsive” or mobile-friendly site that is very adaptable to any changes I may want to make going forward. This is important for you as well. If your site is not mobile-friendly, now would be the time to begin revisiting a revamp.

According to a report from KPCB mobile technology trends  by Mary Meeker, mobile platforms are well on their way to surpassing desktops as the means for most to access the Internet.

In addition to the blog and site sharing the same platform, navigation has improved dramatically, making it a much more user-friendly access-point for O’Brien Communications’ social media presence – LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Going forward, you will find that this site will remain fresh with new updates and other relevant information on O’Brien Communications. At the very least, what you will find here is a more substantive representation of O’Brien Communications and what it has to offer you.