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Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word...

By Emma Johnstone 

What to say in a company crisis

As Belle Gibson’s interview wrapped up on 60 Minutes last Sunday, Tara Brown wasn’t the only one with her head in her hands.  The millions who tuned in to see Belle, the founder of cookbook and wellness app, The Whole Pantry, were left feeling short-changed, disappointed and more confused than ever.  Belle, who was exposed for lying about curing a terminal brain tumour through eating whole foods, had one simple job to do….to say sorry. 

The 60 Minutes, primetime interview was Belle’s chance to publicly acknowledge that what she did was wrong, dangerous and irresponsible.  This was Belle’s chance to take some accountability for misleading and exploiting hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.  Instead she pointed the finger of blame at others and continued to spin more lies, confusing herself, Tara and the viewers.  So what can we learn from Belle’s awkward interview?  Whilst Belle’s situation is arguably of her own making, how should a company spokesperson respond when its consumers are decidedly offside? 



1.    Act promptly

Many companies fear the immediacy of social media – it can be like airing your dirty laundry within seconds of a spillage.  Complaints can be posted as bad experiences happen, for all to see.  But when used properly, social media can be an incredibly effective brand building tool…even when things go a bit Lord of the Flies on you.   The key is to respond to issues quickly – even if you don’t have answers yet, acknowledge the issue and say you’re looking into it.  And then do it.  Just last week, Google Photos made a horrific gaffe when it’s new ‘artificial intelligent software’ automatically tagged and labelled two black people in a photo as ‘gorillas.’  Ouch.  But within minutes of being notified of the potentially career-ending error, a Google spokesperson tweeted the first of 14 tweets, starting by acknowledging the mistake through to resolving the glitch in the software….and making sure to say sorry, profusely, along the way.  In the circumstances, it was handled brilliantly. 

The reality is that no matter how well you plan, issues can arise – sometimes you’ve foreseen them and you’re ready with your response, sometimes even the most gifted psychic wouldn’t have seen them coming.  The key is to be swift when dealing with them.  Use social media as a channel to get messages out there quickly.  Your customers are talking about you on there anyway so you may as well be part of the conversation.


2.    Speak up

There’s no space for burying your head in the sand when things go pear-shaped.  There’s nothing that grates the public more than ‘no comment’ from a media spokesperson.  Say something…it doesn’t need to be Shakespeare.  Acknowledge the issue and if you have no further information to offer then give a timetable of when you hope to.  Help shape the news rather than simply reacting to it.


3.    Take responsibility

Much like a 3 year old on the naughty step, you’re not going anywhere until you ‘fess up.  And like Supernanny, your customers have patience, they’re in this for the long haul.  As Belle Gibson proved, we don’t really care about why at the beginning, we just want to hear you own it and to be accountable.  The theories can come later – along with the resolutions and why it won’t happen again.  If you take it on the chin, you’ll hang onto some credibility, no matter how cringey the conversation.

So yes, issues management is awkward.  Elephant in the room, we’re talking to you.  In fact we’re going to sit on your back and have a chat  (if that’s not getting into the animal cruelty arena).  But issues management isn’t rocket science.  It’s about treating your audience with respect, intelligence and compassion.  If an issue arises-acknowledge it, prioritise it, resolve it and most importantly apologise for it. 

So all that’s left to say to Belle is…I’m sorry.  I’m sorry you missed your chance.  And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry to all the people you took along on a ride that they didn’t sign up for.  I hope that one day soon they hear it from you…but the question is, will anyone still be listening?


Emma Johnstone is PIER Marketing’s PR Specialist. Connect with Emma Johnstone on LinkedIn au.linkedin.com/in/emmajohnstone/en