Two surprisingly good corporate apologies

There have been a lot of quease-inducingly bad apologies lately. (We’ve shared a bunch on our Facebook page that we didn’t address here.) As a palate-cleanser, let’s look at a couple of good ones.

This is the original Amtrak logo from 1971.

This is the original Amtrak logo from 1971.

This has been the Amtrak logo since 2000.

This has been the Amtrak logo since 2000.

We still don’t know exactly what happened in the Amtrak crash of May 12th. But the email from Amtrak President Joe Boardman, sent to everyone who’d registered an email address with the rail company (and viewable here on Amtrak’s web site) on May 15, was everything we like to see in a corporate apology. Here it is in full:

A MESSAGE FROM PRESIDENT AND CEO JOE BOARDMAN ON TRAIN 188

The derailment of Northeast Regional Train 188 was a terrible tragedy that we are responding to with every resource we have available. The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation to determine the cause of the incident, and Amtrak is providing full cooperation.

With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities. On behalf of the entire Amtrak family, I offer our sincere sympathies and prayers for them and their loved ones. Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event.

We recognize that for everyone onboard the train, including those who suffered injuries, the healing process may be long. Within 24 hours of the incident, Amtrak set up a Family Assistance Center in Philadelphia to work closely with the family of passengers and crew on the train. We are also working with the individuals and families affected by this event to help them with transportation, lodging, and of course, medical bills and funeral expenses.

Amtrak is ever grateful to the City of Philadelphia—its first responders who bravely worked in difficult conditions, including the dark of night, to rescue and provide aid to hundreds; its hospital personnel who went into full alert as patients arrived at emergency rooms; its officials who quickly implemented a response plan; and its citizens who opened their doors to offer assistance.

Although our current focus is on the passengers and employees affected by this incident and the resulting service disruption along the Northeast Corridor, we must also take time to learn from this event. Passenger railroading is at its core about people; the safety of our passengers and employees was, is and always will be our number one priority. Our goal is to fully understand what happened and how we can prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future. We will also continue to focus on completing Positive Train Control implementation in the Northeast Corridor by December of 2015.

Thank you for your support of America’s Railroad during this difficult time.

Sincerely,

Joe Boardman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Joe Boardman

President and Chief Executive Officer

 

Why is this a good apology? The emphasis is on sorrow about the loss of life, and it doesn’t sound like corporate-speak. Phrases like “with truly heavy hearts” and “their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities” reflect the magnitude of the disaster. And it’s laudable that Amtrak takes “full responsibility” even though what they’re responsible for and what they owe apologies for is unclear. (Was the windshield hit before the train accelerated around the curve? Does it matter? What was the role of the engineer?) In addition, thanking the City of Philadelphia is gracious; the emphasis on making sure something like this doesn’t happen again is commendable; and the information that Amtrak is cooperating with investigators, while obvious, is still welcome.

Amtrak President Joe Boardman, in Philadelphia

Amtrak President Joe Boardman, in Philadelphia

Boardman backed up his words by showing up on the scene in Philadelphia, being available to the media, attending memorial services and not equivocating like a weaselly CEO. When CNN asked about his reaction to news of the train’s speed around the curve, he replied, “We knew … that was too fast.” When asked if the train should have had a technical feature to prevent acceleration, he answered, “Had it been installed, it would have prevented this accident.” Being available and open, and doing more than issuing statements through publicists, is part of apologizing.

13010-2And now, on to a decent-if-not-quite-as-good apology: New York Comic Con’s, for their huge ticket-selling fail. Last Wednesday, tickets went on sale to the annual convention, held in October. The tickets sold out online in record time, the web site crashed repeatedly, and Comic-Con staff gave confusing advice to fans about how to deal with problems.  (Just like Target’s Lilly Pulitzer sale, but for cosplayers!) The Insightful Panda has a good roundup of all the frustrations and screw-ups; miscommunication and technical errors abounded. And just as Lilly Pulitzer’s Target schmattes showed up on eBay immediately for two and three times their retail price, scalpers promptly began selling dozens of NYCC tickets at a 400% markup.

Iron Man is sad.

Iron Man is sad.

The next day, New York Comic Con put a statement of apology online. It explained that demand was QUADRUPLE what it had been the previous year, and that by the time the ticket sales opened there were already more people in line than there were most kinds of ticket packages. Even if there hadn’t been site issues, people might not have gotten the tickets they’d wanted. NYCC explained that a few more tickets would go on sale, but that people should not buy from scalping sites. “We will comb through those sites and attempt to get tickets removed. We review the data of ticket purchasers and cross check names, addresses, email, credit cards and then remove and ban where we find people trying to buy tickets over the maximum allowed. In short, we are as frustrated by people selling tickets at an inflated price as you are.” Finally, the relevant apology:

We are truly sorry that the ticket buying process did not go as well as we wanted and certainly not as well as you deserve. The reasons don’t matter though; we let you down and as a team, we are really, really sorry for that.  We know many of you won’t get the tickets you wanted for NYCC and for some it is because of sheer demand for limited quantities, for some it is aggressive ticket brokers and for some it is the challenges our system had thrown at it yesterday. No matter the reason for it we want you to know that we wish we could get tickets into the hands of everyone that wants them and we are doing all we can to assure that and that we value you as fans more than you can possibly imagine and what feels the worst is that many of you don’t feel that way today.

This is quite good, as far as it goes. It names the sin, takes responsibility, explains why it happened without excuses, expresses regret, shows that it understands the consequences. It doesn’t, however, offer the last essential aspect for an ideal apology: Explaining the steps being taken to ensure that this won’t happen again.

Hulk sad.

Hulk sad.

To go back to the Target comparison, when Target’s web site experienced utter flail during 2011’s Missoni collaboration, caused by the same combo of technical failure and demand insanely outpacing supply that affected NYCC, Target sent gift cards as an apology to everyone who managed to register but couldn’t check out. (Me included. I had to bid farewell to my dream of that tea set, which sure was cute.)

You will never be mine.

You will never be mine.

The gift card and apology were nice, but not as good as the tea set would have been. And Target, it seems, has decided not to do better. Witness this year’s Lilly Pulitzer madness. Moral: These designer collabs are all about excitement and publicity and buzz and desirability and long lines and panic-buying, not about making individual customers happy with their duvet covers.

So New York Comic Con needs to prove that it’s NOT TARGET. It needs to do more than apologize; it needs to show that it actually wants to get tickets into the hands of fans rather than resellers. What are you going to do to prevent scalpers from snarfing down dozens of tickets next year, rather than trying to police their activities after the fact?

spiderman is sad.

Spiderman is sad.

Commenters on The Insightful Panda point out that there is another convention ticket model, the one used by Gallifrey One (which runs Doctor Who conventions): You can buy up to four tickets, but each ticket is connected to an actual human being with an associated ID, and may only be transferred once. This could work better than NYCC’s current model. However, the vendor site for Gallifrey One’s 2016 convention crashed 20 seconds after it opened to sales; it couldn’t handle the onslaught either. That company’s board, though, decided to switch to email for ticket requests, and made an announcement accordingly.

Ticket requests were sorted based upon the timestamp – to the millisecond – our email server at our web hosts in Atlanta received them; due to the nature of the Internet and how traffic is handled, there is no way to guarantee the arrival time of any email, no matter when it was sent. Within moments of announcing the email address, we were at well over a thousand requests; all told, we received just over two thousand emails, and were able to get to roughly 1460 of them (with one to four ticket requests in each) before selling out completely.

Batman is sad.

Batman is sad.

Gallifrey One not only apologized, but also announced that it’s looking into how to do things differently next year. This is good. Fan culture is huger and more widely engaged and passionate than it has perhaps ever been, and having more humans clamoring for tickets than there are tickets will always be a problem. Con organizers will have to show fans that they care about fairness and transparency despite the challenges. Merely apologizing isn’t enough.

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3 Responses to Two surprisingly good corporate apologies

  1. tanita says:

    I noticed a semi-good apology in the NYT re: the Goleta oil spill — they’ve apologized despite the fact that one can’t really apologize to shorebirds that they’re gunked up with oil — but responsibility from all parties and people leaping in to fix the pipe goes a long way toward making me feel they’re less schmucktastic.

    • sumac says:

      Aha, yes. That came later: “‘We deeply, deeply regret that this incident has occured at all,’ Chairman and CEO Greg L. Armstrong said at a news conference. ‘We apologize for the damage that it’s done to the wildlife and to the environment and we’re very sorry for the disruption and inconvenience that it’s caused on the citizens and the visitors to this area.'”

      Moving past “regret” to actual apology.

  2. Pingback: A Few Words to End the Week | mm2 blog

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