Love may mean never having to say you’re sorry, but the opposite is true in crisis communications.
When Groupon missed the mark with its Super Bowl ads with Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth Hurley, their initial response was to say that they at least weren’t as offensive as “the scores of Super Bowl ads that are built around the crass objectification of women.” Problem is, saying you’re less offensive than something else doesn’t address the fact that you’re still offensive.
To Groupon’s credit, their ads were attempting to highlight their cause marketing campaigns benefiting the Tibet Fund, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and buildOn through well-known actors doing self-parody of celebrity public service announcements. While a fan of cause marketing and self-parody, the ads failed because they either weren’t over the top enough or they didn’t mention the charities in the ad, some of the audience didn’t make the connection.
After the first statement, Groupon edited the ads to make the donation web address more prominent and promoted the campaign through social media and email. Good intentions aside, the ads were still a flop…and so were their attempts to fix it.
Eventually Groupon got it right, issuing a second statement after their mishandled statement about the botched ads. They did this by using that magic word: “sorry”. In a contrite blog posting, founder and CEO Andrew Mason wrote:
Five days have passed since the Super Bowl, and one thing is clear – our ads offended a lot of people. Tuesday I posted an explanation, but as many of you have pointed out, if an ad requires an explanation, that means it didn’t work.
We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did – it’s the last thing we wanted. We’ve listened to your feedback, and since we don’t see the point in continuing to anger people, we’re pulling the ads (a few may run again tomorrow – pulling ads immediately is sometimes impossible). We will run something less polarizing instead. We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through. I personally take responsibility; although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end, it was my decision to run the ads.
This statement hits the three main things to keep in mind when it comes to crisis communication.
Golden Rules of Crisis Communications
- I’m sorry
- I’m responsible
- I’ll fix it
If Andrew and his spin doctors at Groupon had taken this approach at first, they could have saved themselves a week of controversy. They apparently never saw the scene in Clear and Present Danger where Jack Ryan offers the President advice when it comes to light a friend is connected to drug smuggling: “If they say you were close friends, say no, you were lifelong friends. Don’t give them anywhere to go.”
While pragmatic, it’s also the right thing to do. After a couple of missteps, Groupon admitted they were wrong instead of trying to explain it away, assumed responsibility, and took steps to fix the situation. Now life can go on.