By Quentin Fottrell
Since he took the reins from Steve Jobs, Apple CEO Tim Cook has had his every move compared with that of the company’s visionary founder. “What would Steve have done?” many wondered when Apple came under widespread criticism for booting Google Maps off the new iOS in favor of its own, many say inferior, software.
‘We are extremely sorry … and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.’
Tim Cook, Apple
Though Cook may not be as charismatic as his predecessor, he proved Friday that he is more capable in at least one respect, experts say: apologizing for a blunder. In a letter to users, a Cook conceded that Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Maps app had fallen short of the company’s standards. Put side by side with a similar mea culpa Jobs issued five years earlier, most experts say, Cook’s apology comes across as more sincere. See text of Tim Cook’s letter .
“We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers,” Cook writes in his note, referring to complaints about Apple’s Maps app, “and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.” See full story: Apple apology praised, but stock falls 2%.
Apple CEO Tim Cook takes the stage after the introduction of the iPhone 5 at a Sept. 12 media event in San Francisco.
It’s rare for Apple to apologize, but not unheard-of. In 2007, Steve Jobs apologized to customers for dropping the price of the iPhone to $399 from $599 just two months after its release. “We are doing our best to live up to your high expectations of Apple,” he wrote. Unlike Cook, however, Jobs insisted Apple had done nothing wrong: “I am sure that we are making the correct decision.” As consolation, he offered a $100 store credit to those who had paid an extra $200 for the same phone. Read Steve Jobs’s apology .
Cook’s more empathetic and direct apology has the edge over Jobs’s mea culpa, analysts say. “Cook’s statement was structured more effectively, with the apology front and center,” says Ben Zimmer, a language expert and executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com. Jobs, in contrast, framed his letter to customers noncommittally as “observations and conclusions,” Zimmer says. That said, the Maps debacle is a much bigger PR problem for Apple than the price-point issue was, he says, and the current situation demands a stronger apology. Jobs did show greater contrition in 2010, when the release of the iPhone 4 was dogged by complaints about its antenna.
D10 video: Tim Cook
On the first evening of the D10 conference in June 2012, Apple CEO Tim Cook joined Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher onstage for this wide-ranging interview.
But Cook also goes further by suggesting that customers try alternative products like Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Maps, Bing and MapQuest. “Jobs offers no alternative except the opportunity to spend more on Apple products [by issuing a store credit] instead of, say, mailing out a check for the difference,” says language expert Alan M. Perlman, a linguistics consultant and author. Cook says he is “extremely sorry.” Jobs’s phrasing — “We apologize for disappointing some of you” — suggests emotional detachment, Perlman says.
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Apologizing can be a minefield, and, if not done right, it can even make matters worse.
On the following pages are five more CEO apologies that had varying degrees of success.
The Magnum Mea Culpa: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, 2009
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos holds up new Kindle Fire HD models on Sept. 6 in Santa Monica, Calif.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos threw the book at himself in 2009, when copies of George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” mysteriously vanished from people’s Kindle e-readers. Customers were shocked and confused, and the online retailer was accused of banning books. It was, perhaps, unfortunate that the books dealt with themes like censorship and totalitarianism. The truth was less dramatic than that: The books were removed because Amazon didn’t have authorization from the publishers to sell them.
CEO Jeff Bezos posted a message on Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) public forum — as if he were just another customer: “Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.” See Jeff Bezos’s apology .
Both repentant and humorous, “this apology is clearly the cream of the crop,” Zimmer says.
The Friend-to-Friend Apology: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 2006
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University in November 2011.
Back when Facebook only had a few hundred million members, CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced the “news feed.” Intended to compete with just-launched Twitter’s endless stream of updates, the feature infuriated users, who found it too busy and cluttered. Zuckerberg responded with a lengthy open letter on his blog, admitting full responsibility in his opening sentence: “We really messed this one up.” See Zuckerberg’s apology .
But Zuckerberg’s statement read like an email to a close friend: Self-deprecating and casual, it even applauded his most vociferous detractors. “This may sound silly, but I want to thank all of you who have written in and created groups and protested.” He organized an online chat to discuss Facebook’s (NASDAQ:FB) new privacy policies and thanked people for taking the time to read his letter. Not everyone was impressed. Christopher Elliott, author of consumer-advice book “Scammed,” says it was “rambling.”
The Unsigned Apology: Sony Online Entertainment, 2011
Kazuo Hirai with predecessor CEO Howard Stringer at a February 2012 news conference in Tokyo.
Some apologies are not signed by a human being at all. In 2011, Sony (NYSE:SNE) blocked users from playing online games and accessing Netflix and Hulu after hackers compromised more than 100 million records, including 12 million unencrypted credit-card numbers. The breach impacted PlayStation, Sony Online Entertainment and its Qriocity music service. Sony’s May 2 statement began” Dear Valued Sony Online Customer.” And ended: “Sincerely, Sony Online Entertainment LLC.” See Sony’s statement .
Howard Stringer, the company’s CEO, didn’t make a public comment for three days. When he finally did issue a statement, his tone was warmer. “Dear Friends,” he wrote, “I know this has been a frustrating time for all of you. Let me assure you that the resources of this company have been focused on investigating the entire nature and impact of the cyber-attack we’ve all experienced and on fixing it.” See Stringer’s statement .
What the company didn’t acknowledge is that it had failed to protect customers from such an attack, Zimmer says.
The Serial Apology: Research In Motion founder Mike Lazaridis, 2011, and CEO Thorsten Heins, 2012
Research In Motion CEO Thorsten Heins holds up a Blackberry during a January 2012 interview in New York.
The BlackBerry maker (NASDAQ:RIMM) has repeatedly apologized in the past year. In October 2011, founder and former co-CEO Mike Lazaridis issued a mea culpa to the millions of customers hit with three days of global services outages. In a video clip, he said, “We’ve let many of you down. But let me assure you we are working around the clock to fix this. You expect better from us, and I expect better from us.” See Lazaridis statement .
Lazaridis recognized his role and made it personal, says marketing consultant Evan Carmichael; however, the problems continued.
Fast-forward to 2012: Another apology for problems with BlackBerry service in Europe and Africa on Sept. 21. This time, CEO Thorsten Heins posted a short, dispassionate statement: “We are conducting a full technical analysis of this quality-of-service issue and will report as soon as it concludes. I again want to apologize to those customers who were impacted today.” See Heins’s statement .
Heins didn’t explicitly take responsibility for the problems with the service, Zimmer points out.
The Half-Apology: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, 2011
Reed Hastings at Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in July 2012.
In July 2011, Netflix increased the price of its video-streaming and DVD-rental services. The company (NASDAQ:NFLX) apologized for not properly communicating its strategy to customers and, in September 2011, announced that it would spin off its DVD-by-mail service under the name Qwikster. Around a million subscribers canceled their accounts in the months after the price hike and split — causing the company to abandon its plan to split the services. (Since then, Netflix has gradually been regaining many of those lost customers.)
CEO Reed Hastings went into damage-control mode. In a 1,160-word blog post on Sept. 18, 2011, titled “An Explanation and Some Reflections,” he apologized for the missteps. “I messed up,” he wrote. “In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success.” Oddly, he didn’t apologize for pricing increases, which experts say was the big reason customers were upset. Carmichael says Hastings failed to follow one key rule: “Explain what you’re going to do to make sure the problem gets fixed.”