Yom Kippur and PR Apologies

On Thursday, I wanted to go to sleep early.  I was tired and NEEDED my sleep.  But I didn’t.  I was too enthralled with watching the reactions from the fallout between Brand Link Communications and TheBloggess.

In case you are the single person online who hasn’t heard about it yet, TheBloggess was pitched by PR firm Brand Link Communications to run a piece about one of the Kardashians in pantyhose.  Now, TheBloggess’ blog is many things, but it is not about celebrities and what they wear.  This wasn’t the first bad pitch she’s gotten.  In fact, she gets so many that she has a dedicated page to send them to.

Normally, PR firms will either not contact her back or will apologize and/or remove her from their lists.  This time, however, they replied in a bit of a snippy manner.  At this point, I’m sure TheBloggess would have just shrugged and gone on with her life.  She would have, that is, had Jose from Brand Link not hit reply all and used quite a colorful phrase to describe her.  From this point on, the situation spiraled out of control and not in a positive way for Brand Link Communications.

What does this have to do with Yom Kippur?  On this Jewish holiday, we realize that we’re going to be judged for the things we’ve done in the past year.  To make amends, we traditionally apologize to people we’ve wronged.  An apology doesn’t always make everything better, but it can go a long way towards repairing all sorts of relationships.  However, these apologies need to be sincere.  Just saying “I’m sorry, but I’ll do it again” or “I’m sorry if you were offended” isn’t enough.

When Jose realized his mistake, his response should have been an unequivocal apology.  Something along the lines of: “I’m sorry.  I messed up both in my language and in the match between the original pitch and your blog’s content.  I’ll look into ways to better target pitches so that you receive pitches that your readers will actually find useful.”  This would have helped smooth things over and we would likely have never heard about the interaction (a good thing in hindsight).

Instead, Jose sent an “I’m sorry but…” reply.  He even went so far as to blame TheBloggess for starting the mess and to tell her that she should be thankful that they send content her way.  As if, without PR firms, TheBloggess would be a nobody with nothing to write about.

TheBloggess replied with soon-to-be-immortal (and hopefully emblazoned on a shirt) words: “Please stand by for a demonstration of relevancy.”

What happened next was quite a demonstration.  TheBloggess blogged about the situation and many of her 160,000 followers on Twitter started tweeting about it.   The story was picked up on by none other than Wil Wheaton (1.8 million followers) and Neil Gaiman (1.6 million followers), and Perez Hilton (3.9 million followers).  Obviously, there’s likely some overlap in followers, but needless to say that this story had millions of people worldwide viewing it.  It was a very public affair and very bad for Brand Link.

At one point, Jose (who has since deleted his Twitter account), tried defending his actions as trying to defend Wil Wheaton.  Then he claimed his account was hacked and finally, he mentioned that he had apologized to TheBloggess.

Could this have been avoided?  I was thinking about this during Yom Kippur and realized there were many times that Brand Link could have apologized and made it all go away.  After the original pitch and TheBloggess’ response, they could have apologized.  (And not had someone commit Reply-All-icide.)  After the Reply All, Jose could have been proactive, realized what he did and quickly followed it up with an apology (and not just a “I’m sorry if you were offended, but…”).

Once TheBloggess posted her blog post, however, the quiet person-to-person apologies needed to be big public apologies.  At that point, they didn’t need to satiate one angry Bloggess, but a few thousand (if not hundred thousand or million) folks.  There are many lessons to be learned from what happened between TheBloggess and Brand Link Communications, one of the big ones is how *not* to apologize.

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