Beleaguered Chinese dairy companies have used an unusual method of apologizing to 300,000 children and their families in China harmed by milk tainted with melamine. China Daily reported that on January 1st, the Sanlu Group and 21 other dairy firms sent a text message apology to the mobile phones of millions of Chinese citizens. The message read:
"We are deeply sorry for the harm we brought to children and society. We offer our sincere apology and plead forgiveness."
In an email, my colleague Chris Gidez commented that "On the one hand, this demonstrates how technology enables direct-to-consumer communication. On the other hand, it can be seen as intrusive, gimmicky and insincere if the underlying problem isn't addressed."
As much as I believe that social and mobile media are undervalued as tools for managing crisis communications, and that apologies are essential to bringing about closure when harm has been caused, I have to agree with Chris that effective communication (online and offline) and sincerity are not enough to ensure an organization's reputation recovers from the crisis.
What else needs to be done? At a minimum, a company or organization must:
- Demonstrate it has changed the process or behaviour which led to the damaging event and that it will work tirelessly to ensure it doesn't happen again;
- Provide adequate restitution for the harm caused (in the U.S. this will likely be determined by class action suits anyway);
- Be prepared to work openly and honestly with regulatory bodies to find sector-wide solutions and protocols to prevent and mitigate similar events;
- Offer a recovery plan to demonstrate to other stakeholders -- especially the investment community if the company is publicly traded -- that its business and operations will be made whole again.
Although in some countries, like China, even this may not be enough. According to another colleague based in Hong Kong, the CEO of one of the Chinese companies involved is facing execution.