The slightest misstep in today’s social-media-driven culture can push companies into crisis mode – issuing knee-jerk public apologies that can cheapen genuine expressions of contrition down the road and even result in long-term reputational harm.
I’m shaking my head about the latest corporation begging for forgiveness – Buffalo Wild Wings. The restaurant chain caught some flack online for implying that the Houston Astros baseball team deserved a more severe punishment for cheating in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Last month, the Astros dodged player suspensions and received only a $5 million fine, the loss of some draft picks, and one-year suspensions for its manager and general manager over the sign-stealing scandal.
“THAT’S how you punish a team that cheats,” Buffalo Wild Wings tweeted, taking a shot at the Astros while sharing a story about the Manchester City soccer club that faces a $32.5 million fine and a two-season ban from the Champions League for rules violations.
Then, outrage ensued (a very online, very Houston-specific, very blink-and-you-miss-it type of outrage). Apparently, a few fans sent angry tweets, a few local news outlets wrote articles, and Buffalo Wild Wings went into apology mode.
"So last night was the roast of Buffalo Wild Wings, courtesy of the city of Houston. And honestly, we deserved it. Well done, H-Town, for coming to your team’s defense, and we're sorry about what we posted,” the company tweeted from its account on Saturday.
The apology, if anything, drew more criticism than the initial tweet. (Original tweet: 3,900 comments; 26,500 retweets; 159,300 likes. Apology tweet: 4,000 comments; 667 retweets; 5,400 likes).
So, what was Buffalo Wild Wings's reasoning? What was the value of the apology? What was the expectation – that angry Astros fans would suddenly flock to the nearest location and place an order? Was criticizing a professional sports team’s cheating during a year it won the World Series really beyond the pale?
If a company plans to apologize for every innocent social media flap, it can expect to remain in constant crisis mode. And if an apology is necessary, it should follow a thoughtful, well-reasoned review of the situation – not because enough tweets said you should.
Perhaps the biggest upside from the apology was the additional media attention Buffalo Wild Wings received.
Most Americans only think about Buffalo Wild Wings during its commercials, so maybe the company leaned into the publicity opportunity and, at the same time, felt it was taking the high road.
Companies, though, shouldn’t be so quick to grovel in public, relying on quick-fix apologies to satisfy social media and press criticism. And not all do this.
For example, Peloton declined an apology tour last December after its infamous holiday commercial drew accusations of sexism and comparisons to the dystopian world of Black Mirror.
“While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by — and grateful for — the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate,” the company’s statement said.
Now, only two months after the outrage erupted over the Peloton commercial, few remember whether the company self-flagellated for a week or just said its ad was “misinterpreted.”
And from a PR perspective, that matters a lot. First, an apology tour is full of potential landmines (think Norm Macdonald). The last thing you want is to be forced to do a second apology tour because your first one was inadequate or tone-deaf. That vicious circle can get out of control quickly.
Second, by unreservedly apologizing and taking full responsibility for a tweet or commercial, a company essentially accepts all the worst interpretations of that tweet or commercial. In the case of Peloton, that means accepting the sexist label; in the case of Buffalo Wild Wings, that means admitting the tweet was truly offensive to the city of Houston and to Astros fans across the country (and threats to boycott the restaurant were perfectly reasonable).
Companies only harm themselves by accepting the social media smears and intentional misrepresentations of their public messaging. Once they admit guilt, the news media reports the apology and the company is forever branded by its public sin.
That’s not to say apologies are unnecessary – obviously, misbehaving companies should own their mistakes, ask forgiveness, and explain how they’ll do better – but automatic apologies shouldn’t be issued as soon as a few angry tweets roll in and some negative news coverage hits the web.
Consider this: Three months after the outrage ensues, few will remember your misunderstood tweet or commercial, but, if handled correctly, a company will have safeguarded its brand by refusing to accept or sanction any odious labels that were meant to do it permanent harm.
Matthew Beaton is a PR consultant and founder of Beaton PR, which works with law, finance and tech firms. He is based in New York City.