Monday night, as Hurricane Sandy hammered the East Coast, the Wall Street Journal broke a business story that would have risen much higher on the news agenda under different circumstances. One of Apple’s top executives was reportedly fired because he refused to join his boss in apologizing for a snafu for which this executive was at least partially responsible. The product in question was Apple’s much maligned Apple Maps software, which is installed on every new and upgraded iPhone.
You can read about what happened to Scott Forstall here. By all accounts, his refusal to participated in a sound and somewhat uncharacteristic PR move by Apple did not alone cost him his job. But it appears that it was the proverbial “last straw.” Apple has become the world’s most cash-rich company by making products that consumers not only want, they feel like they need. That success has come in spite of the fact Apple is also often the most arrogant on the planet, even though it grew from the most humble, entrepreneurial roots.
When a company messes up, it should apologize to its customers. It’s really that simple. When that happens, it’s a company apology. No one executive should be allowed to sit out. A leadership team can not lead when a one executive is out of synch, especially in a public way.
Several years ago, I worked with a technology client in transition. Because of a bankruptcy filing by a third-party provider, it had to quickly transition customers to a new, hastily-created system. That transition did not go well, knocking out service to hundreds of thousands of customers. In a meeting with local management, both the company’s ad agency and I recommended a quick public apology. The executives refused, saying they had nothing to apologize for – the outage was caused by another company’s bankruptcy and they did the best they could. That was an awful decision, driven by fear and hubris. After several days locked in the public pillory, their corporate bosses overruled them and demanded a local apology, which was received “better late than never” by the public. As strongly as the local executives felt about not apologizing, they got in line when ordered by top management.
These two lessons are important when considering technology and product PR. Sometimes, things won’t go as planned or as promised. When that happens, you owe it to your customers to apologize, fix the problem and quickly move on. It’s really that simple. If only every executive could understand.