When pictures of “Sugar” dating platform Sugarbook’s billboards in Kuala Lumpur went viral, it garnered lots of media attention… But for all the wrong reasons!
Sugarbook claims to be the leader of Sugar Daddy and Sugar Baby dating where “romance meets finance”. Their controversial billboards in Kuala Lumpur advertised Sugarbook as a place “Where beautiful, successful people meet”, telling girls to “Upgrade your love life”.
While some people found the billboards amusing, many others were downright offended. Netizens called Sugarbook’s ad and service inappropriate, and demanded that they be banned in Malaysia.
Sugarbook founder and CEO Darren Chan did not apologise for the offending billboard, and said it was “unjust” to ban the dating platform.
In his statement, Chan said that Sugarbook was built to “empower women” by giving them a platform to choose what they want in a relationship without being scrutinised.
However, Chan’s statement seemed to backfire, angering the public further.
Women, Family and Community Development Deputy Minister Hannah Yeoh criticised Chan for calling Sugarbook a tool for female empowerment. While, netizens took to social media to express their abhorrence.
So what do you do when you find yourself in the media for the wrong reasons? How do you manage the crisis and how do you apologise to the public?
SETTING UP THE RIGHT TEAM
To manage a crisis and craft a sincere apology, multiple stakeholders need to be involved. And no, you cannot solely rely on your Public Relations team! While the exact make-up of the team will probably differ depending on the brand and the issue, here are the players that need to be involved:
Senior Management: When a company is being steamrolled by a crisis situation, there’s bound to be a lot of internal scapegoating and finger-pointing. The senior management need to rally the team and ensure that people stay focused on responding quickly and accurately. They would also need to quickly make decisions on what corrective steps the company should take, and whip up a plan on how to move forward.
Operational Team: This should be someone who was directly involved in the incident. They are needed to recap what exactly happened to help speed up the process of crafting a response.
Legal: This is a tough one. Legal teams usually err on the side of caution and try to ensure brands do not implicate themselves – however, this needs to be tempered with public perception. If a debate about the wording erupts between the communications and legal teams, it’s important that everyone takes a step back to remember that they are on the same team, and work towards the same long-term goal.
REACHING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Once the A-Team has been assembled, it’s time to get cracking on the actual response. An important point to remember is that while people associate public apologies with press statements, the general public is not the brand’s only stakeholder. Deciding the order in which you reach out to different groups is important, as you don’t want to be accused of pandering to a certain audience.
For instance, let’s say that your company’s latest blender model has been blowing up (and not in a good way, but in the literal sense). Your first outreach needs to be to the consumers whose safety and well-being were compromised, followed by your employees and distributors, and then media and rest of the public.
If those most affected were to read about the apology in the newspapers first, it is going to come across as insincere. Similarly, if your employees find out about the mishap on social media, it is safe to say that there will be very little trust left between staff and senior management.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR MISTAKE
Think of the last time you had a fight with a significant other. Isn’t it absolutely infuriating when instead of apologising, they go on the defensive?
Let’s look at an excerpt from Sugarbook founder Darren Chan’s statement: “In light of the public’s concern over our billboard, we hope you understand that we built Sugarbook to empower women…”
Chan acknowledges the “concern” and then jumps into defense-mode by saying the platform is built to empower women instead of apologising.
Instead of burying their heads in the sand and pretending as though the issue was nothing more than a midsummer night’s fever dream, companies should acknowledge the reality of the situation and show that they’ve been listening – actually listening – to public discontent.
If you’ve hit someone with your metaphorical bad driving, all you have to do is say “we are sorry we hurt you, we made a mistake, and we will strive to ensure that such an oversight will never occur again,” and mean it. It’s honestly that simple.
SO… WHAT NOW?
Once you have acknowledged your audience’s feelings, their next question will probably be along the lines of “what now?” And yes, this is pretty daunting for most brands.
The main takeaway is that a proper apology must go hand-in-hand with a tangible plan to bring about real change. Building an effective long-term plan may feel like an uphill struggle, especially when you are under immense pressure to respond to a horrible situation in the best way possible.
However, to further prevent the dissolution of public faith in your brand, you need to spell out exactly how you and your team are committed to addressing the offensive incident in question and ensuring it will never happen again. It can be tempting to lean on the crutch of vague language when making promises to the public, but now that people are highly attuned to corporatespeak and (pardon our French) they can smell bullsh*t a mile away.
Ultimately, the purpose of an apology should be to set the record straight and make things right. While people may seem at times a hardened, sceptical lot, you’d be surprised by the general population’s capacity to forgive and move on… but only if brands are willing to eat a bit of humble pie.
Need help crafting a genuine, sincere apology? We can help with that: firstname.lastname@example.org