As corporate apologies go, Groupon’s mea culpa and corrective actions after its Super Bowl ad controversy was about as forthright as they come: “We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did,” CEO and founder Andrew Mason wrote in a post last week on the corporate blog. “It’s the last thing we wanted.” (http://nyti.ms/ff54Kj.)
The spot – since removed from Internet channels such as YouTube due to copyright issues – featured actor Timothy Hutton humorously promoting Groupon’s incentive to dine at a Tibetan Restaurant in Chicago after video clips and an announce track referred to Tibet’s long-standing cultural and political troubles. Critics blasted it as dumb, insensitive and borderline offensive among even harsher responses.
Lost in the controversy was an important fact that was never mentioned in the original spot, or in two others featuring different “do-good” celebrities also “spoofing” less incendiary causes: that Groupon was contributing money to charities linked to the issues. “We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through,” Mason wrote. “I personally take responsibility. Although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end it was my decision to run the ads.”
As crisis counselors, CommCore advises our clients to assess their problem honestly, and if appropriate, demonstrate contrition that is genuine. One of the most important tenets of crisis response is: when one is correctly held to blame, admit the mistake without trying to explain it away. We applaud Mason and Groupon for the directness of their statement: they’re sorry, they erred, they didn’t intend to insult anybody. And Mason took the blame himself. Obviously, in cases involving ongoing or pending litigation, public responses have to be calibrated. But even with legal oversight it is still possible to communicate real concern IF the concern is really there.
Two other notes on crises: One is, who had the tin ear that let this ad get produced? The other and more important to those who want to avoid public embarrassment: learn from your mistakes, and formalize what you learned into new protocol so they will not be repeated. Presumably Mason and Groupon will change the way they evaluate their next promotional campaigns. And we also hope they continue to do good by supporting charitable causes.
What do you think of Groupon’s apology? Can you think of similar situations involving your organization or clients?