NPR

The Deflation of “I’m Sorry” in the Economics of Apologies

A recent study suggests the best apology may be one that involves monetary compensation. Experience shows the best apologies are ones that include credible, demonstrable action that shows you really mean ‘I’m sorry.’ [Illustration Credit: Paul Rogers/New York Times]

A recent study suggests the best apology may be one that involves monetary compensation. Experience shows the best apologies are ones that include credible, demonstrable action that shows you really mean ‘I’m sorry.’ [Illustration Credit: Paul Rogers/New York Times]

We may have entered an era when a simple “I’m sorry” has little currency to the recipient of an apology. You might do better offering some form of compensation.

Effective apologies have become a mainstay topic when discussing crisis communications. Crisis counselors, including us, have encouraged sincerity buttressed by demonstrable actions to correct the wrong that required an apology. But a recent study hints that might not be enough to regain or even maintain a level of trust. 

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College who applies economic tools like game theory and experimental design to understand social systems such as apologies, identity, fairness and attitudes about climate change. Ho holds seven degrees from Stanford and MIT in economics, education, political science, math, computer science and electrical engineering. He was recently featured in a  Freakonomics podcast  about apologies. [Photo Credit: Tamar M. Thibodeau / Vassar College]

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College who applies economic tools like game theory and experimental design to understand social systems such as apologies, identity, fairness and attitudes about climate change. Ho holds seven degrees from Stanford and MIT in economics, education, political science, math, computer science and electrical engineering. He was recently featured in a Freakonomics podcast about apologies. [Photo Credit: Tamar M. Thibodeau / Vassar College]

Benjamin Ho, an economics professor at Vassar who studies apologies, teamed up with Uber to test a variety of apologies following a ride gone bad. Apologies that included a commitment to do better in the future often backfired, especially when there was another subpar ride. The apologies that worked best involved monetary compensation.

If Ho was a psychologist, he might have explored why an apology tied to money was a better palliative than an apology tied to a commitment to do better. My dime store interpretation: People have become increasingly cynical. They doubt whether a promise about better behavior in the future will be – or can be – kept. Immediate gratification, like a $5 coupon for a future Uber ride, is more satisfying because it’s more tangible.

Tangibility is the key here. People expect an apology. It’s like “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. But the apology isn’t enough. What counts is the action that follows. The more tangible the action, the better. Or as Ho put it, “Show me the money, basically.”

The Uber example focuses on money, but compensation isn’t the only tangible value apology recipients may desire. If a new water reservoir construction site suffers a major slide, neighbors will be less interested in money than concrete assurances the problem has been fixed. If your bank has been hacked, depositors will want protection from theft.

The phrase “action speaks louder than words” applies. Apologies are something you say. Actions are something you do. Saying you are sorry is important, but it’s best to prove your sincerity through meaningful, relevant and tangible actions. What you say and do after the apology is what counts.

You can’t overlook the economics of apologies. As Ho explained to NPR, “We tested apologies with or without a coupon. We found basically the most effective [Uber] apology, the ones that increased revenues, were just with a $5 coupon.”

Ho’s findings suggest apologies can be transactional. However, as any husband has discovered when bringing home flowers when he forgets an anniversary, the gesture only gets temporary love. You might earn forgiveness, but you don’t build trust with money or flowers.

Trust is the true goal of an apology. Individuals, businesses, nonprofits and public agencies need to realize the point of an apology is to regain trust that is lost or tested – and, when possible, to burnish a reputation. Trust and an enhanced reputation typically aren’t built on cash; they are earned by credible, demonstrable actions, which may include restitution. 

The underlying message of Ho’s study is that ordinary, pro forma apologies aren’t enough now, if they ever were. If you face a crisis, big or small, treat it seriously and put on your work boots to do what’s necessary to earn trust. 

Doing anything less is worse than a waste of time; it is a lost opportunity. And the loss could be permanent.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

People Like to See Things as They Happen

A news crew live streamed interviews at a GOP presidential debate on Facebook Live, a tool that is making live streaming of breaking events an attractive option with low production costs and high viewer and interactive upside.

A news crew live streamed interviews at a GOP presidential debate on Facebook Live, a tool that is making live streaming of breaking events an attractive option with low production costs and high viewer and interactive upside.

Streaming media may have started with elevator music in the 1930s, but today it has expanded to live streaming of events over the Internet. News organizations are trying to tap larger online audiences by live streaming newsworthy events. Their experiences may embolden public affairs managers to join the parade.

CFM’s most recent Under the Dome blog post reported how CNN, MSNBC and other news outlets provided real-time coverage of the March 28 Capitol shooter incident by live streaming video shot with smartphones by people trapped in the building. Other news organizations are experimenting with live streaming the news in a less ad hoc manner.

Poynter.org’s Benjamin Mullin shared the experiences of four different news outlets that are experimenting with live streaming via Facebook Live, a two-month-old channel that gets a news feed preference in the social media site’s algorithm. The early trials are pretty impressive and suggest live streaming news will become more prevalent.

Here are excerpts from Mullin’s piece about NPR, The Verge, BuzzFeed and KXLY-TV in Spokane:

NPR

The public radio network live streamed its political coverage of the so-called “Mega Tuesday” election results on Facebook Live after producing a video that it posted on Facebook after Super Tuesday voting. Lori Todd, an NPR social media editor, told Mullin that the live streamed coverage drew “thousands more comments and seven times the view duration.” The Mega Tuesday feed lasted 34 minutes.

Todd said live streaming allowed NPR to reach highly engaged fans as questions from the Facebook Live audience were used in the broadcast. “Facebook has built the tool to be accessible to the most people possible – all you need is your phone and the Facebook app,” she added.

The Verge

The Verge – a Vox-owned American tech news and culture network – has applied live streaming with Facebook Live to product release announcements for the Galaxy S7 and iPhone SE and in-office question and answer sessions. It has used the technique to demonstrate the security risks of New York Wi-Fi hotspots and test new Oreo flavors. Vox reports its live streaming experiments have attracted a “large video audience” with only a “small time investment from producers and writers.” It also has boosted Facebook page reach, Vox says.

BuzzFeed

Through its multiple Facebook pages, BuzzFeed has conducted 70 live streaming videos, including its Tasty’s Fondue Party that Mullin said “racked up 5.2 million views and thousands of comments.” Encouraged by early results, BuzzFeed is doing its homework “to learn more about live – what type of content our audience enjoys live, how we can use live in new and different ways, how we can interact more with our audience by creating live content.”

KXLY-TV

An ABC affiliate in the smaller Spokane news market, KXLY-TV has toyed with live streaming to give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at its newscast, conduct a live Q&A with its sports director and cover a press conference “about a man who shot a pastor.” Station officials received positive feedback from viewers who appreciated hearing firsthand what was said by law enforcement spokesmen about the troubling incident.

Melissa Luck, executive producer and director of social strategy for the TV station, told Mullin, “It has given viewers a chance to interact directly with our reporters and anchors and it has benefitted both sides of that video stream interaction. People like watching things as they happen."

The relative simplicity and low technology threshold posed by live streaming creates intriguing opportunities for issue managers and crisis counselors. A video production showing how a complex process works may be less believable than watching a spontaneous live-streamed demonstration. Video from the scene of an environmental spill that is placed on Twitter provides a timely update, but live coverage of spill remediation may be more reassuring and less suspect.

Some of the live streaming pioneers report squeamishness about events “being suddenly broadcast for the world to see.” While understandable, “live streaming” is already out of the bottle as people with smartphones become reporting genies on the spot. Mastering these emerging tools is just another way to keep up with the competition of sharing news – and telling your story. 

BuzzFeed Delivers Downers to Political Candidates

Nobody has exploited digital media better than BuzzFeed to explode the hypocrisy and contradictions of political candidates, setting an example for others to follow to humble the mighty or trip up the well-intentioned.

Nobody has exploited digital media better than BuzzFeed to explode the hypocrisy and contradictions of political candidates, setting an example for others to follow to humble the mighty or trip up the well-intentioned.

The digital age has become a heyday for opponents. You can bring down a dictator or a local ballot measure with a laptop computer and cell phone. You can embarrass a political candidate by digging up obscure speeches, photographs and video stored on the Web.

Lately, nobody has been better at humbling the mighty than BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed launched nine years ago to track and share “contagious news.” By 2011, BuzzFeed graduated from a social media and entertainment Internet company into a full-fledged news operation that retained its “clickbait headlines."

Based in New York City, BuzzFeed produces content daily from its staff reporters, regular contributors, syndicated cartoonists and its community of readers. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, which seems like it has gone on forever, BuzzFeed has become the journalistic equivalent of what political pros call “oppo research.”

Andrew Kaczynski, 26, is in charge of BuzzFeed’s 4-person political research unit, called the K-File. He is referred to as the unit’s “old man."

Kaczynski is a journalist who earned his spurs by posting clips on YouTube that contradicted what politicians said on the stump. BuzzFeed hired him in 2011 and his reputation has continued to grow. One admirer called Kaczynski the “Oppenheimer of archival video research.” He was called the most influential opposition researcher in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, where he posted footage of Mitt Romney running for governor of Massachusetts as a “progressive.” It was Kaczynski who exposed Rand Paul for plagiarizing lines from the movie Stand and Deliver for a Senate floor speech about immigration.

BuzzFeed has vexed most of the candidates in this cycle by finding material from their shadowy pasts that causes them present-day heartburn. A piece this week by NPR credited BuzzFeed for discovering the video in which Ben Carson said the pyramids of Egypt were built as grain silos and the records showing Hillary Clinton’s claim was false that all four of her grandparents were immigrants.

It was BuzzFeed that found the C-SPAN clip from 1996 when Clinton referred to some children as “superpredators” and the dusty 1985 video of Bernie Sanders speaking admiringly about the Sandinistas and Fidel Castro. It also was BuzzFeed that produced audio indicating Donald Trump wasn’t opposed to invading Iraq from the beginning after all.

Having potent material on BuzzFeed’s popular channels would be bad enough for candidates, but its posts are now routinely picked up by more traditional news organizations. It was CNN that pinned down Clinton on her “superpredator” remark and got her apology. 

The BuzzFeed model conforms perfectly to digital media. It relies on deep dives into long forgotten data pools. It thrives on shareable, attention-grabbing content. It produces contagious news that spreads virally through and beyond social channels.

The cautionary tale of BuzzFeed is that all it takes to be good at opposition research is the patience to keep searching for contradictions, misstatements and hypocrisies. The caution in the tale extends beyond running for political office to any kind of public statement, proclamation or claim. Make sure what you say is true and consistent with what you have said. If you’ve changed your view, own it. If you have dirt swept under the rug, be prepared to deal with it. 

Andrew Kaczynski isn't a digital one-off. His clone may be your next-door neighbor.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Setting the Record Straight

When the news media makes a significant fact error in a story, it is perfectly all right — and, in fact, a good idea — to ask for a correction.

The same advice doesn't apply when you simply dislike "the other side of the story" contained in the coverage.

There is no magic in asking for a correction. Start by calling the reporter who wrote the story. Most times, they are eager to clear up any mistakes. Before running a correction, they will (and should) verify your claim there is a mistake. You can help by providing a credible or official source of the correct information.

Some people wonder if a correction is worth the bother. Others fret it simply brings additional attention to a story you would just as soon have fade away. Those concerns are misplaced.

You need to stick up for your facts — whether it is the correct spelling of a name or an accurate description of a legal process. Reporters and editors don't resent that; they respect it. A constructive, polite exchange about a correction can actually establish better rapport with reporters and editors, paying dividends in future coverage.

Errors in print can be frustrating. Corrections appear in later editions, often in a section reserved for corrections, not necessarily with the same page dominance as the original story. However, most archival searches nowadays occur digitally, so a correction for online editions can be worth the effort. If you rigorously monitor a story's appearance online and spot an error early enough, you sometimes can avoid the mistake appearing in print, at least in later editions.

TV and radio newscasts seldom run corrections, except for the most egregious errors. However, they also have websites where corrections can be made so errors aren't perpetuated. Some broadcast shows, such as NPR's All Things Considered, have a section devoted to reader letters, which often point out mistakes or poor news judgment.

Bloggers may hang out somewhere between credible journalists and eager hobbyists, but they also should be given attention when they make a significant fact error. A student in one of my classes who operates a discount website was upset when a blogger essentially re-posted an old piece about the site's deficiencies under its prior ownership, I encouraged him to call the blogger to remind him of the change in ownership and the steps taken to address the faults he identified. The call was an opportunity to get a positive post, contrasting the new with the old.

Do you read me?

How simple should our prose be? Put your writing to the readability test. As the authors of public affairs materials — fact sheets, news releases, policy papers and more — we are given the assignment of being comprehensive while being clear and concise. Simple is hard.

Professional writers often get caught walking the “readability” tightrope, balancing between being “too complicated” and accused of “dumbing it down.” Keeping the audience in mind always is the best gauge. That always will help in deciding the level of detail and complexity you may get away with in any document.

Of course, there is the Flesch-Kinkaid two-tier scale of readability developed by the military in the 1970s. The Reading Ease score indicates how easy a text is to read. A high score implies an easy text. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade level indicates the grade a person will have to have reached to understand the text. 

The scoring goes something like this: 

•  90.0–100.0: Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student;

•  60.0–70.0; Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students; and 

•  0.0–30.0: Best understood by university graduates.

Old Media Wins Election Audience Share

A majority of people who follow election news prefer old media, such as cable TV, rather than new media as a primary source.It’s as if someone bellies up to the bar next to you and says, “I’ll have an Old Style.” But this isn’t a request about a favorite beer, but how thirsty news consumers want their election news.

People who closely follow election news prefer to get voting results by “old media,” such as cable television, according to a story reported by National Public Radio. The NPR report was based on a survey of more than 1,500 persons by the Pew Research Center. It showed that more than one-third of Americans are leaning on cable channels for election news — just as many as in past years — while relying less on local television stations, newspapers and the national networks, NPR reported. 

Social media has been much heralded but relatively little used by average voters, according to Andrew Kohut, president, Pew Research Center. “And the new media kids on the block? The media may be fixated on them,” Kohut told NPR, “but the public is not.”

According to the Pew study, only 2 percent of people sought election news from Twitter, 3 percent from YouTube and 6 percent from Facebook. "These numbers are very modest given all that we've heard about the impact of social networks on this campaign," Kohut says.

Clicks of Consequence

We’re all overwhelmed by too much information in the new digital age. The cure for too much information is dieting, developing the discipline to restrict what we consume on a daily basis.

That’s the subject of a new book entitled The Information Diet, written by Clay Johnson, the founder of Blue State Digital. They are the folks behind the online strategy for the 2008 Obama campaign. Scott Simon of NPR interviewed Johnson last Saturday. (Click to listen.)

Johnson makes the case for more "conscious consumption" of news and information.

In playing out the diet theme, Jonson compares information overload to overeating. Johnson tells Simon: "Our bodies are wired to love salt, fat and sugar. ... Our minds are really wired to be affirmed and be told that we're right. ... Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they're right? Who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed? What we do is we tell our media that that's what we want to hear, and our media responds to that by telling us what it is that we want, and sometimes that isn't what's best for us."

Johnson recalls his experience working on Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.

"I noticed that because of our media diet, we were consuming everything that was great about Howard Dean. Even after that scream incident in Iowa, we still thought we could win and that we would make it, and we went on to New Hampshire and South Carolina thinking that victory was just around the corner. That was when I began to see that we can get a little delusional in the world of politics.”

Social Networking and Trade Associations

Have social networking sites for professionals made trade associations obsolete? Maybe not.Have social networking sites for professionals such as LinkedIn made trade associations obsolete? Maybe not.

Even though some trade associations, such as the Pay Telephone Manufacturers Association, may have lost their allure, many continue to attract members who are interested in networking, sharing knowledge and acting in concert. And emerging industries and professions are spurring creation of new associations.

There are an estimated 92,000 trade and professional associations in the United States, according to a story broadcast by NPR last week. "But as the American workplace changes, some trade associations are having trouble adjusting," reports NPR's Linton Weeks. "Many associations – including those for plastics engineers, carpet cleaners and commercial printers – have struggled to survive."

Weeks notes the association of association managers, ASAE, has turned to futurists for survival tips.

"An association must be in the business of providing just-in-time knowledge to its members," suggests Jim Carroll, author of Ready, Set, Done: How to Innovate When Faster is the New Fast.

Pitching Public Broadcasting

With all the tumult in the media business – smaller audiences, shrinking revenue and fewer traditional outlets — one traditional news source remains a sure bet for reaching a key audience. Story pitchers should stay focused on public broadcasting, a relatively stable platform during the past few years.

Business communicators tend to overlook opportunities to place stories on the many great public radio outlets in the region. They shouldn’t. For instance, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) attracts a sizable audience and reaches key population centers in the state. Two years ago, OPB said it reached 350,000 radio listeners in Oregon each week. Its audience is growing.

Two other lively public radio networks also produce news programming for parts of the state not necessarily covered by OPB. Eugene’s KLCC-FM covers a broad swath from Central Oregon to the central coast. And, KSOR-FM in Ashland, better known as Jefferson Public Radio, reaches across Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Dealing with public broadcasting outlets really isn't that different from their commercial counterparts. One significant difference is that public broadcasting news programs, especially on public radio, devote more time to individual topics. Public broadcasting also covers government activity more routinely than commercial stations.