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Creating Goodwill from a Potentially Serious Incident: How Saying You’re Sorry Changes Everything

The late Professor Raymond Simon, one of the pioneers in the development of public relations as an academic discipline, taught his first-year PR students a definition of PR so effectively that most can still spit it out as quickly and precisely as the Boy Scout Oath or the Pledge of Allegiance: “The activity or activities designed to create goodwill, understanding and acceptance.”

Years later at Mower I worked with a colleague who had a different definition: “Do the right thing and get caught doing it.” The later definition is simpler than Professor Simon’s, and although Ray is no longer with us, I think he would have liked the shorter definition (but would still have insisted students be able to repeat the first on demand).

I was thinking of those two definitions recently immediately following a plane crash I was in.

I should probably provide some background.

Here goes: I was technically in a plane crash because I was in one of two planes that, even though they were on the tarmac and barely moving, managed to strike each other. It was a minor jolt. A bump really. Like hitting a small pothole. A couple of chunks came off one or both planes and fell to the ground. No one on either plane was injured. In fact, only those with window seats saw anything.

Those who fly frequently have at least one story like this one. It’s a simple matter of math: fly often enough and you’ll experience things they don’t put in the commercials.

Although the experience itself is a cool story to tell, as a student of PR and after nearly 30 plus years of practice (the last 10 doing crisis work), I prefer to tell the better story.

After the “crash” I spent another four-plus hours in transit to my final destination. Quite honestly, I had all but forgotten the incident, as I was preparing for a day-long presentation which was the reason for my travel. Then came the email. From Southwest Airlines. Saying they were sorry. And softening the trauma of my experience with the promise of a voucher for future travel.

Southwest created a lot of goodwill, understanding and acceptance with me because they reached out, told the truth and expressed concern. They did the right thing and got caught. Candidly the airline industry hasn’t always been the most forthcoming in times of crisis, but they’ve come a long way.