‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest word

14th February 2012

It states that over 70% of organizations across the world are now active on social networks as "there seems to be little doubt that social media is widely seen as a viable and effective business tool." But the report also says that "many of the more developed markets seem to be lagging behind their peers in the emerging markets, indicating significant room for expansion in the advanced economies. Emerging markets seem to be quickly finding that social networks offer yet another opportunity to leapfrog the competition in the developed markets."

Musician brings down airline

There's one area of social media where the most developed economies have nothing to learn from other nations, however. And that's in the art of the "apology". Ever since the much cited United Airlines incident in 2009 when a musician passenger, angry at the inadequate response to the airline breaking his guitar, penned a song which became a viral hit on Youtube. This forced the United Airlines share price southwards and eventually obliged the airline's management to back down and grovel.

But there is a controversy over how real some apologies are – and when that spills over into quoted companies, there are grounds for shareholder detriment if the executive managers do not have a coherent social media strategy to counter complaints stakeholders – investors, customers and sometimes staff and suppliers – who definitely will have a social media strategy.

Much balances on the understanding of "apology". Does this mean contrition and compensation?  Or is it more along the lines of the Greek "apologia"?  Plato's Apologia was essentially a defence to charges against Socrates, not saying sorry.

Two recent cases point this out. Path, a "journaling" software site, was discovered to have copied contact details from its users' smartphones without their knowledge or permission.  Journaling is seen by many as the next generation of social media – it enables smartphone users to share their photos, videos, and even details of their daily lives such as the time they go to bed with a selected group of people – family or close friends rather than Facebook with its broader remit.

And Airbnb, a room renting service, failed to respond to a customer who found her home in tatters after renting it out to strangers introduced by the site.  

Copying all contacts

According to the New York Times, a Singaporean discovered Path was copying all the contact details it could find from users' phones. David Morin, Path's chief executive, commented that this was "industry best practice."

This was not the best thing to do. Social media erupted in anger – Morin and Path became hate figures, with many pointing out that besides infringing personal privacy, he might have endangered users in the Middle East and other areas of potential political dissidence.

After a short time, Morin decided to bow to pressure with a sincere apology on the company's blog. He said that Path would begin asking for permission before grabbing address books and that the company would destroy the data collected.

Despite David Jacobs, a fellow with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, stating that, "once again, an Internet company showed a lack of understanding about the consequences of taking data", and many programmers saying this was not an accident but had to be a deliberate policy – the writing of the software would have taken hundreds of hours – the vast majority of reaction to Morin's "we made a mistake, we are sorry," was positive. Forbes was among many media outlets to praise his stance.

Trashed room – trashed reputation

Airbnb is a website that puts those who need a room in touch with those who need some space. Last summer, a San Francisco "host" had her home totally wrecked by "guests" who had found her place via the site. Her complaint was dealt with badly – it took 14 hours for a response and then she was largely ignored. She used social media to air her anger – this provoked a wave of complaints about the site.  So the original problem had now become a reputational issue as this blogger states.

Airbnb eventually gave in to the pressure, apologised and offered new insurance. But it failed to escape without criticism – some of it's very pointed as it should have moved immediately to sort out the problem (and all those that preceded it). Instead, it tried for some time the "apologia" – a defence when the social community it needs for its basic business model had turned against it.

The eventual contrition and compensation have helped. But Airbnb will stay a case study for corporates on how not to deal with difficulties for some time.


More from Mindful Money:

Incorporating social media into investment decision-making

East meets West: Investing in The Network Effect

Facebook is the new Greece

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