A Tale of Two Apologies

Recently two high profile companies experienced high-visibility failures. Travis Kalanick, the founder and CEO of the ride sharing firm Uber, issued an apology following a belligerent conversation he had with an Uber driver. Also, Pricewaterhousecoopers (PwC), the accounting firm working with the Oscars award ceremony, mishandled the distribution of envelopes announcing the winners at the Academy Awards presentation and issued an apology.

Has a corporate failure ever played out in front of such a large worldwide audience?

Both Kalanick and PwC wasted no time in issuing contrite apologies. I consider it real progress when corporations and powerful CEOs understand it is in their interests to issue non-defensive apologies at appropriate times.  Let’s look at the apologies one at a time.

Uber

Within 24 hours of the video going viral, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sent the following apology to all Uber employees:

By now I’m sure you’ve seen the video where I treated an Uber driver disrespectfully. To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement. My job as your leader is to lead…and that starts with behaving in a way that makes us all proud. That is not what I did, and it cannot be explained away.

It’s clear this video is a reflection of me—and the criticism we’ve received is a stark reminder that I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up. This is the first time I’ve been willing to admit that I need leadership help and I intend to get it.

I want to profoundly apologize to Fawzi, as well as the driver and rider community, and to the Uber team.

—Travis

An apology statement has two main jobs: to accept responsibility and to actually say the words “I apologize” or “I’m sorry” without conditions.  By this standard, Kalanick has issued a world-class apology.  I’m not aware of any corporate CEO ever acknowledging that his leadership is so wanting.  If an apology is also meant to communicate that the offender is determined to change, Kalanick’s statement is spot on.  Now he has to deliver on that promise.

The apology also signals that Kalanick not only acknowledges that many critics regard him as an asshole but that he fundamentally agrees with them.

Every effective apology requires an attempt to offer restitution. I’m willing to accept Kalanick’s humbling himself together with the commitment to get leadership coaching as adequate restitution.  But there is also an opportunity for Kalanick to “profoundly” reach out to the driver, Fawzi, with a personal apology and a profound gesture of restitution.

And the Best Picture Is . . .

Immediately after the 89th Oscar awards, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) apologized for the biggest fiasco in Oscar history and perhaps the most visible corporate branding gaffe since the Edsel. 

Since 1935, PwC firm has enjoyed the coattails of the Oscars to polish its image as the accounting firm trusted by the stars.  As everyone knows, at the very end of the Oscar awards, PwC mixed up the envelope given to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, an error that led to the wrong movie initially being identified as the Best Picture of 2016.

The legitimate winner was the movie “Moonlight.” But because of the mixup, the presenters were given a duplicate envelope that had earlier correctly announced Emma Stone, the co-star of La La Land, as the winner in the Best Actress category.  From my perspective, it seemed a confused Warren Beatty understood that something was wrong and hesitated. But his co-presenter Faye Dunaway thought Beatty was just being playful, grabbed the card, apparently saw the words “La La Land” and announced that movie as the winner.Chaos ensued.  

Within hours, PwC issued a statement.

We sincerely apologize to “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.

We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.

—PwC

This is an adequate apology to start.  As high-profile as the Oscars are, it’s just an award program.  No one got hurt. There’s a lot of embarrassment but all of it is on PwC, whose 83-year relationship with the Oscars may well be in jeopardy.  What I appreciate is how quickly it came and how direct it was.

In a statement a day later, the company announced that the two partners on the PwC balloting team, Martha L. Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, would no longer be working the Oscars.  By acknowledging a breakdown of PwC protocols, the company accepted that this matter was no an accident but a failure.

High profile failures like this demand high profile consequences. On its official twitter account, PwC took the unusual step of calling out Cullinan by name, for “breaching established protocols.”  It appears that Cullinan was multitasking, tweeting backstage photos when his focus should have been on handing out the correct envelopes.  It didn’t help Cullinan that he later deleted the tweets.

The PwC balloting team: Martha Ruiz and John Cullinan

I think Cullinan should offer his own apology and offer to resign.  Whether he apologizes or not, I believe that Cullinan should separate from PwC.  An effective apology allows all parties to move forward  . . . but not necessarily together.

All in all, a good week for public apologies.

 

 

 

 

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