How many times must I apologize?

My Web host has been having major problems, so my blog has been down since last Thursday. Here is the post that I planned for Friday—I hope to be back on my daily schedule now. It was kind of weird to be unable to publish for a few days. It’s nice to be back in the saddle. Here goes.

When you speak to enough groups, you always get questions that you’ve never been asked before. Last Thursday, I was lucky to be able to address 50 public relations professionals from Intel, the chip-making giant, and got a great question: “How many times, and in how many places, must I apologize?”

The question was provoked by several points I made in my talk. I emphasized how the Web is forcing companies to drop their corporate dignity and become more human. I implored them to dump their hopes that by not responding, the ugly story will go away—today, not responding merely seems to fan the flames among bloggers, for example. And I let them know that the best way to build a relationship with customers to admit you screwed up when you, in fact, did.

They got it. I am sure that they didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the idea—no one does—but they understand that avoiding that uncomfortable conversation is becoming riskier to your brand image than engaging in tough dialogues.

But what is the answer to the question? How many time should you apologize? Should you just issue a press release fessing up and leave it at that? Do you pick the most public place where you were called out?

I say no.

I say that you should apologize any place it seems appropriate. Every place it seems appropriate. Wherever someone sounds aggrieved, jump in and say you are sorry and say what you intend to do to make things better and to avoid it happening again.

Well, I could tell from the looks on their faces that I did not give the “right” answer. What I am suggesting is, in fact, impossible, right? How can a single PR person responsible for an issue answer dozens, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of complaints on that issue, all scattered across the nooks and crannies of the Web?

It’s obvious that a single PR person can’t do that. Sure, you could marshall the resources of multiple PR people in a crisis, but only big companies can do that. What’s the real secret to responding to these far-flung and numerous Web complaints?

The secret is the rest of your employees.

The era of the “Lone Ranger” PR person is over. (I’m not sure why we Americans use the Lone Ranger to signify someone working alone, because he had Tonto at his side, but cut me some slack here.) The new role of a PR person is to help the rest of the company do PR too. Get the rest of your company involved in the various Web communities that are important to your company. Long before the crisis.

Help everyone in your company understand that each of them is an officially deputized PR person. Teach them how to operate in public—even if “in public” for them just means participating in a message board. Make sure they understand what they should say and what they shouldn’t. In a crisis, coach them on how to handle it.

Above all, teach them to give back to the community they serve. Help them gain fans in that community so that when a crisis does occur, they’ll have built up enough goodwill that people will listen to them. You’ll probably find that other people defend your company or at least defend your employee just because of that goodwill built up over months or years.

And when those connected employees answer a hot issue, they’ll be listened to far more closely than a faceless PR stranger ever would be.

Is it risky to empower your employees to speak for your company in public? Yes. The only thing riskier, however, is preventing them from doing it.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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