Can Apologies Be Funny?

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    Going against convention boosts J&J’s brand reputation

    Apologies are supposed to be serious. If you’re joking, then you don’t really mean it, right?

    Johnson & Johnson, whose handling of the infamous 1982 Tylenol tampering murders and ensuing crisis management still stands as a “how-to” case study today, begs to differ, and did so in style with a hilarious video apologizing for shortages in a particularly popular brand of tampon.

    Why’d it work? Larry Kahaner explains in this quote from a McGowan Fund blog post:

    Just like the Tylenol incident which has become a standard case study in B-Schools (I included it in my own book Say It and Live It.) this event will be studied as well because it goes against the conventional wisdom that says to never use humor in a apology. The danger of the joke fall flat can be devastating to a company’s reputation and brand. This time, however, humor works perfectly. Why? For one thing, nobody died. Second, it’s personalized in a way that seems downright magical. Third, the company makes fun of the shortfall in a way that is not mean spirited but jests, ever so slightly, at the personal affection and loyalty women feel for this product. J&J has found the perfect mix of ‘we’re truly sorry,’ and ‘gee, we didn’t realize how much you cared.’ They show that they appreciate the ardor women have for the product but also make a bit of fun at how overzealous this love can be. They’re also making light of romance novel and cheesy nighttime drama stereotypes. It’s a balance that is nearly impossible to pull off, but they did.

    The topper is that they offer a free coupon for the product at the video’s end. Nothing says sorry like free.

    As Lara explained, the key to this working was that the apology wasn’t really needed at all. A shortage of one particular product on a flooded market isn’t a major crisis management concern, but spotting the opportunity to create positive online buzz regarding a returning product and brand in general? That’s the type of move that separates the good from the great.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. , an international crisis management consultancy, and author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]