A few years ago an angry customer sent me an e-mail complaining about one of Ragan's workshops. The letter caught me at the exact wrong moment, and I exploded. Something about the letter seemed fake. Then I remembered: This was the person who left early on the first day and never returned. How could she hate a workshop she never attended?
Here's where everything went wrong. I wrote what I thought was a hilarious letter to my conference staff ridiculing the customer for playing hookey. It was one of those cathartic, get-it- out-of-your-system tirades. But then I hit "reply" instead of "forward."
If you've ever been in this situation, you know the feeling. You realize your mistake as soon as your finger lifts off the key and your entire body goes into super slow-mo as you scream,"nooooooooo!!!"
If ever I needed a crisis communication plan it was then.
I immediately chased my horrible letter with a plea for understanding. I began with a heartfelt apology. It was sincere, of course; I was indeed mortified. But guessing that everyone has had a similar experience in their lives, I took a chance. I asked if this had ever happened to her. Not only did she write back to say she understood -- and that yes, she had once made a similar blunder -- she thought the entire event was great fun.
I thought of this when I saw what happened to Countrywide Financial Corp's CEO Angelo Mozilo the other day.
Like every other mortgage lender today, Countrywide has been in a tailspin. It issued tens of thousands of bad loans to customers who everyone up the lending food chain knew could never pay back. Every day has been a pretty crappy day ever since. So you can imagine the kind of mood Mozilo may have been in.
Here's how this PR disaster unfolded. A customer sent an e-mail to Mozilo with a plea to save his home of 16 years. The letter struck Mozilo as fake, it actually sounded like the kind of canned letter offered up by Internet sites that purport to help customers get loan relief. "This is unbelievable," Mozilo wrote in an e-mail he thought was going to his staff. "Most of these letters now have the same wording. Obviously they are being counseled by some other person or by the Internet. Disgusting."
The letter ended up on an online forum, then it hit the blogosphere. As Paul Harvey likes to say, "now you know the rest of the story." Full PR panic ensued.
Mozilo's PR team issued a statement to reporters: "Countrywide and Mr. Mozilo regret any misunderstanding caused by his inadvertent response to an e-mail by Mr. Bailey."
The statement backpedals further: "Countrywide is actively working to help borrowers, like Mr. Bailey, keep their homes."
PR Goof #1: Calling the fiasco a "misunderstanding." What "misunderstanding?" This was the exact wrong word to use, the exact wrong tone to take. This was no "misunderstanding." It was a mistake -- an embarrassing, monumental, silly, humiliating whale of a mistake. So say it. Step out onto the public stage and take it in the testes. It's your only hope.
PR Goof #2: Claiming that Countrywide actually cares about all of the people it's foreclosing on. Look, maybe it's true. Maybe there is some collective sadness at Countrywide that is prompting it to help the people they screwed with sub-prime loans. It doesn't matter. The public is in no mood to hear how Countrywide cares. They already look at Mozilo and see Well-Fed, Cigar-Chomping Big Shot. So put a lid on the "we care" crap. No one believes it. Besides, care is what care does in these scenarios.
One final thought on this subject.
A recent article appeared in The New York Times that supports this "shut the F---up and apologize" crisis plan.
A study found that doctors who apologize to their patients immediately after they screw up are sued less, even when they make horrifying mistakes like removing the wrong rib. This is not some airy theory. There are real stats to back this up.
At the University of Illinois, for example, of 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged a preventable error and apologized, only one patient filed suit. At the University of Michigan Health System, existing claims and lawsuits dropped from 262 in August 2001 to 83 in August 2007, and legal costs fell by two-thirds.
Moral of the story: People want to forgive, but they don't want to forgive pompous jackasses who refuse to admit their mistakes.