Company apologies and PR ethics

Saying sorry

"We've been doing a terrible job … meeting demand for our products,” admitted Min Liang-Ten, chief executive of gaming laptop manufacturer Razer in April last year. For a corporate leader, that’s some confession. But he went on. “We suck at this. I suck at this,” he said. Finally, he did what so many companies struggle to do. He said: “I apologize to all of you.”

The reluctance to apologise is enormous. That’s understandable. Business leaders, like everyone else, are psychologically predisposed to avoid saying they are sorry. Doing so feels risky and uncomfortable. Companies also worry about potential liability. Apologising could, as lawyers readily point out, be read as an admission of guilt. The few times that companies do say sorry, their effort is often botched or mealy mouthed.

This superb Harvard Business Review article presents an “apology formula” to help companies hit the right note. Much of it is common sense. The issue of who should say sorry (preferably, a senior leader), when an apology should be made (as soon as possible), what an apology should contain (candour, remorse, and a commitment to change) and where an apology should be issued (in a high-profile setting) all sound straightforward. Yet in a tense situation, with emotions running high, it’s easy to slip up. Hence, the authors’ recommendation for companies to prepare themselves ahead of time by running “apology rehearsals”.

Core violations demand an apology

Compared with the “how” of apologising, the question of whether to say sorry or not presents a trickier dilemma. Companies shouldn’t apologise willy-nilly: doing so quickly becomes tiresome and disingenuous (consider, “we are sorry for the late running of this train”). The paper lays out four primary questions companies should ask. The most basic is determining whether a violation has occurred, either real or perceived. If so, there’s no debate: say you’re sorry.

Next, decide if the violation was “core” or “non-core”. If a carmaker makes a car that is faulty, then that’s core; if it engages in transfer pricing, that’s less fundamental (although an apology may still be required). Gauging public reactions is critical too. Remember: in the days of social media, a single customer complaint can impact the views of millions of potential customers. Finally, and most importantly, a company must determine its willingness to change. An apology that comes without evidence that the mistake will not happen again comes across as weak and insincere.

Done badly or not done at all, an apology (or lack of one) can make a negative situation worse. Done well, however, it can provide companies with a low-cost way of improving relationships with customers, employees and the public.

Schweitzer M, Wood Brooks A and Galinsky A (August 2015) The Harvard Business Review, 44-52.

Public relations and codes of ethics

More than 4 million professionals now wear the “PR” label at work. Establishing codes of ethics marks one way that these practitioners seek to build credibility for their profession. This should be seen as a positive development. Unethical public relations can serve to bolster nefarious political regimes or allow unscrupulous corporations to “greenwash”. Undertaken ethically, however, PR can help promote a “fully functioning society”, the authors maintain. But what does “ethical” look like for a PR executive? And is there such thing as a universal or normative set of PR ethics, or are they culturally specific?

In an effort to answer these questions, the researchers analyse a collection of 33 national and eight international codes of ethics to see where they converge and diverge. Codes are created in one of two ways: either in response to local values and contexts, or at the instigation of international firms when they invest overseas. Research into globalisation suggests society is increasingly “networked” across borders and that “common cultural codes of values” are the glue that sticks such networks together. So as the PR profession grows and cross-border interactions between practitioners increase, the assumption is that codes will begin to converge. Is that happening?

The evidence suggests not. Instead, countries with similar value systems group together into regional “clusters” (the researchers identify five in total). While marked similarities exist among their respective ethics codes, the differences between clusters are considerable. To some extent, the issue is one of weighting. Six priority values feature in all codes – professionalism, advocacy, clients’ interests, moral standards, expertise and relationships – but they are interpreted differently and with different emphasis. Countries with an “organisational-centric” approach to PR such as Canada and Australia, for example, prioritise the first three in the list. Those with a “societal” approach, such as Brazil, France and Germany, give more focus to moral standards.

It’s too early for a global ethics model to exist for the PR professional, the authors conclude – an outcome that is reflective of an ongoing dialogue between clients, practitioners and society around the world. This paper opens the door for a similar study of codes governing other areas of business communications, such as advertising and marketing. It also invites future investigation into the relationship between ethical codes and actual practice. After all, if anyone knows how to cover their tracks with fine-sounding words, it’s the masters of PR.

Taylor M and Yang A (September 2015) “Have Global Ethical Values Emerged in the Public Relations Industry?” Journal of Business Ethics 130: 543–555.

From campus

Net Impact’s annual conference is scheduled for 5-7 November 2015. The campus-based group will include 10 conference tracks and 100 sessions. Hosted in Seattle, Washington, it’s a must for values-minded millennials as well as those looking to recruit them.

Boston College’s Centre for Corporate Citizenship is introducing a new one-day course on employee engagement. Scheduled for 4 November 2015, the executive management intensive is subtitled “Make your corporate citizenship meaningful to executives, managers and employees”. The session will take place in Dallas, Texas.

Business School Bulletin  conduct  toyota  Razer  PR 

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