Crisis Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

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

  1. I’m sorry
  2. I’m responsible
  3. 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.

The Ads

This entry was posted in Advertising, Blogging, Cause Marketing, Crisis Communications and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Crisis Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

  1. Given how socially progressive this company seems to be, I was shocked at the length of time it took to issue an ACTUAL apology.

    Oh well. At least it happened. I think right after the FTD fiasco. Bad week for Groupon… 😦

    • Todd Post says:

      I was half tempted to add on the FTD fiasco at the end, but in the end I decided against it. At least in that case, it was FTD that pulled the fast one and their response was fairly swift and satisfactory.

  2. As important as “I’m sorry” is, “I’m responsible”, and “I’ll fix it” probably mean more. Great post on taking responsibility for mistakes and errors.

  3. The Compulsive Writer says:

    You mean..someone hasn’t seen Clear and Present Danger? Ah-greegious! I love your golden rules of communication………….

  4. Rachel says:

    If you forget Valentine’s Day, you WILL have to say you are sorry!

  5. J Roycroft says:

    Congrats on FP

  6. Ascentive says:

    Its amazing how a simple sorry can really help. And yet saying sorry is so hard for some people to do… Great Post!

  7. wordnymph says:

    Your message is right on. If you haven’t read it, Steve Adubato wrote a good book on the subject of crisis communications, entitled What Were They Thinking? Much to be learned here. Congratulations on Freshly Pressed.

  8. Janet says:

    Good advice – the last element, “I’ll fix it” usually seems to be missing, glad you pointed that out.

  9. CrystalSpins says:

    I hope that in the future other companies and public figures with take GroupOn’s lead and follow these three steps you’ve outlined.


  10. hezaire says:

    it’s crazy to me that, with all the eyes that undoubtedly saw the ad before it aired, Groupon could have gotten it so wrong. especially when it was supposed to highlight their work for such good causes! disappointing. i am glad that they finally did the right thing, though. great post and congrats!

    • Todd Post says:

      That’s my first thought with most of the epic fails in advertising and marketing. Not only what were they thinking in terms of the client, but what were the “collective they” thinking…creative team, account management, etc.

      When I worked with the public service advertising, we:
      1. Started with research as a baseline
      2. After our ad agency come up with concepts, those concepts went through an internal review and external “creative review committee”
      3. Put the approved concepts through focus group testing with the target audience
      4. Were intimately involved in the shoots and editing
      5. Had multiple levels of reviews for the final cut

      It’s amazing that they would go so far as to produce a Super Bowl ad and either bypass a similar process or have it fail for them. It’s not that just Groupon’s judgment failed, multiple failures had to have taken place for this to get produced.

      Once the ad was out there though and the backlash started, how Groupon responded was completely on them. You’ll note that they quickly dealt with the FTD brouhaha this weekend the right way…at least they learned!

  11. I agree- if you’ve crewed up- hold up your hands and admit that you’ve done so. Anything else – (or worse trying to defend your actions) just makes you look big headed and arrogant. I cannot believe they would not have been more careful, especially as the ads were superbowl ads.. then again, there is the other side of the coin… all publicity is apparently good publicity…

  12. So true about contrition. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!
    blogging from Haiti,

  13. bindo says:

    Just another example of how pathetically sensitive people have become..Yes, they were outraged, at what? Someones lousy sense of humor? If anything, Groupon should have stood their ground and released an even more offensive commercial..

    But hey, there’s nothing like bowing down to public pressure, as if the public really knows what’s good for themselves. I guess a Superbowl commercial is far more important than say, living in a country neck deep in foreign wars for profit and congressional slush funds.


    • Todd Post says:

      In general, I agree with you. I didn’t find the ads offensive, in fact I was left with more of an “eh” impression when I saw them during the game. In regards to the ads themselves, Groupon could have avoided this by either:
      1. Making more blatantly over-the-top obvious that this was tongue-in-cheek satire of celebrity endorsed campaigns
      2. Ended the ads with a plug for their cause marketing campaign

      Perception however is reality and once it did start down the path of being perceived as offensive, they fumbled the ball in how they responded. Ripping off the Band-Aid is the quickest way to stop the “controversy”.

      • Sarah Legg says:

        I kind of agree with this reply…I didn’t think the ads were that offensive. That being said, I think Groupon should have definitely made their charity connections more prominent. And, like it or not, as a large company in the spotlight, the public wants to see apologies and make-goods which is good for business and the people Groupon employs.

  14. janicecooper says:

    Simple but true…

  15. Awesome post. Sorry is the magic word. If only Christina Aguillera said that.”I screwed up the anthem. I’m really sorry.” Maybe people would have dropped it a lot faster.

  16. How many times have we seen the non-apology apology (Justin Timberlake)? This ine feels better even if it was delivered later than sooner.

  17. dtrasler says:

    Ooh, I hate this! Something really big and important happens and I missed it all. Now I have to go find the adverts, so I can be offended by them and mollified by the genuine apology.
    On a serious level, the non-apology apology is so political that people must realise by now it’s going to bite them. I remember when New Labour first appeared on the UK political scene and one of their MPs (Can’t remember who) was talking about previous policy. They said “We were wrong.” A simple statement, but he wasn’t trying to blame someone else, or distance himself or his party, he just admitted they had been wrong about something. I immediately became more sympathetic to his cause because I believed they might actually tell the truth. Of course, it only took a few years in power before they were all lying and stealing and lining their own pockets, but they are, after all, only MPs. Bless ’em.

  18. rp71 says:

    One lies at least 5 times to cover one lie….

  19. Anyone who has tried to apply for a Groupon ad-writing job (as I’m sure quite a few un- or underemployed writers have) knows that they refer reverentially to the “Groupon Voice.” If you can’t master it, then you won’t be a good fit for the company. A look at the writing samples they provided didn’t make the “voice” clear to me, except I think that there was an emphasis on a bit of sarcasm and a lot of hyperbole — but not. (?) I have a feeling that the ad company they used didn’t get it either. Then again the company did okay the ads (which I found confusing and thoughtless) so I guess even the head of Groupon hasn’t completely mastered the “Groupon Voice.”

  20. greenie1277 says:

    Of all the things to be upset about in this world, I don’t think commercials should be one of them.

  21. Great post!
    My own blog deals exclusively with the need to accept responsibility and make a sincere apology without flimsy excuses or the shifting of blame. The non-apology is alive and well. Sports stars, politicians and business executives give me plenty of raw material. I continue to be amazed at how reluctant we are to spit out the words “I’m sorry” even when it is clearly in our best interest to do so. I’m also amazed at how people who have armies of public-relations help available to them still cannot craft an effective apology. Feel free to check out my blog:

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  23. Coraline says:

    Excellent article! I think you hit the nail on the head when you narrow down what this comes to and the 3 golden rules are clear and easy to remember! I work at an airline and I’ve got to use a lot of Crisis Communication too, but sometimes it’s really hard because people’s responses are so different that one needs to be very careful with what is said not to offend anybody.

  24. What is this “Super Bowl” and is it available in shops?

  25. “Sorry”, when said truthfully and genuinely, is really a magic word. Great post! =)

  26. Kopf.Adeyemi says:

    For not posting a constructive reply…

    “I’m Sorry”

  27. gmomj says:

    I’m still waiting for Clinton to choke up a mia culpa.
    Great post and great lesson for life.

  28. Dan Smolen says:

    Nicely done, Todd.

    Dan Smolen
    Start It Up, LLC

  29. Ryan Rosado says:

    I completely agree with you regarding Groupon’s faux pas of not saying sorry the first time around. I do think the commercials were kind of funny but agree that the charities aspect should have been hyped up more. Also, I think you’re blog post is great but could be even better if you embedded the commercials via YouTube and maybe a clip from the Harrison Ford flick in addition to the links. Just a thought. Awesome post!

    • Todd Post says:

      Thanks Ryan! You can view the clips by clicking on Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth Hurley’s names. I thought about embedding them, but from a formatting point of view, I was afraid it would break up the flow of the text. Maybe I’ll embed them below.

  30. Liz says:

    Great post! Those commercials were ridiculous. Makes you wonder who the writers are and what on earth they were thinking.
    Congrats for being published on Freshly Pressed!

  31. gmomj says:

    In general I agree with your premiss re:accountability….but I just watched the Elizabeth Hurley ad and it was hilarious!

  32. jcadena89 says:

    These ads from Groupon were a complete media error. I do not understand why the individuals in charge of creating this ad did not review the ads prior to airing and interpret the way it was supposed to be portrayed to consumers. Now, the ads were not completely offensive but just a bit rude. I saw the ads as the “bystander effect” which works like this, “look at that poor kid getting beat up, nobody is helping, so I shouldn’t either”. In the simplest form possible, I did understand a bit of the message that correlated to a charitable purpose but that was not enough. They could have mentioned a bit more about their public service announcements.
    As much as Groupon was at fault, I believe that the actors in the ads were just as responsible for endorsing the ads. Why would they not speak up? In a way, it appears to have just been a monetary purpose rather than philanthropic purpose of endorsing the program.
    In closing, Groupon might have strategically saved them from major embarrassment. However, that is not enough to say that they waited a little too long to speak out and apologize for what they aired. I understand that Groupon might truly be sorry for what messages were shown through their ads, but to some other viewers, I think that they might misinterpret their “apologetic” message as insincere and as they did the first set of ads.
    Thank You.

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  35. As important as “I’m sorry” is, “I’m responsible”, and “I’ll fix it” probably mean more. Great post on taking responsibility for mistakes and errors.

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