Video Apologies Must Show Empathy to Turn a Mistake Into an Opportunity
CEOs dealing with a crisis not only need to be transparent, they also need to be convincing on video. As some CEOs have learned the hard way, a bad video apology can make a crisis worse.
Case in point: Kyte Baby CEO and founder Ying Liu was forced to make a second video apologizing for her first apology video, which sparked a sharp backlash against the Texas company that makes baby clothes.
In her initial video on TikTok, Liu apologized for disallowing an employee request to work remotely while she cared for her adopted premature newborn who was in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The video received 2 million views and ignited a fire storm of outrage.
Critics said Liu sounded rehearsed and inauthentic. Some made their own TikTok videos threatening a boycott. The reaction prompted Liu to issue a second video apology. “OK, I’m going to do this,” Liu said in her second apology. “So, I just posted an official apology on TikTok. And the comments were right – it was scripted. I memorized it. I basically just read it, it wasn’t sincere and I’ve decided to go off-script.”
“I was the one that made the decision to veto an employee’s request to go remote while she has to stay in the NICU to take care of her adopted baby,” Liu explained. “And when I think back, this was a terrible decision. I was insensitive, selfish and only focused on the fact that her job had always been done on-site and I did not see the possibility of doing it remotely.”
Liu concluded by saying, “As a mom, as a female owner of the business – and especially a baby business – I feel like I need to set the record straight. I fully realize the impact of my actions … I did not accommodate [the employee] fully and did not even reach out to her personally, didn’t even talk to her at all about what happened to her until today.”
The second video apology came across as chastened and sincere. It received 4 million views and a common theme was “too little, too late”. The affected employee rejected Liu’s belated offer to provide paid maternity benefits and allow her to work remotely. The damage had already been done by the thoughtless first video apology.
Liu’s Apology Misstep Common
Liu is hardly alone among CEOs who have muffed apologies. The biggest gaffe is handing off an unpleasant apology assignment to an underling. Appearing inauthentic in a video apology is a close second. Denying remote work for a new mother with a premature child seems by definition inauthentic, if not inexplicable, for a company that sells products to new mothers.
In a bygone age, apologies could be written statements. In a digital world, video apologies are expected. Like any performance, video content is evaluated as much on how you look and sound as the words you speak.
Video provides a platform that can show empathy better than written words. Video also can show the lack of empathy better than written words. A video apology is expected to feature the top gun using words from the heart, not from the computer of a staff member.
Apologies in Context
Framing an effective apology requires considering its context.
Kyte Baby had a maternity policy that provided a two-week paid parental leave for an employee who had worked at the company for at least six months. A condition of receiving paid parental leave was signing a contract to return to work and remain on the job for at least six months. Liu construed returning to work to mean returning to the office.
The impacted employee declined to sign she contract knowing her adopted child’s medical condition wouldn’t allow her to work at the office.
A Kyte Baby spokesperson responding to an inquiry from Today said, “Upon reflection, we should have taken more steps to accommodate her situation. We’ve since realized that Kyte Baby needs to stand by our values of being a woman-owned, family company.” The company said it would revise its maternity policy.
Weighing the Impact of Decisions
It wouldn’t have taken a seer to foresee the company’s response would rub its clientele the wrong way. The absence or inadequacy of paid leave policies has emerged as a flashpoint for female and male employees with responsibilities to care for children or aging parents at home. The universal shortage of child care and the pandemic experience of working remotely have made working parents less willing to head back to offices they once occupied. The ability to work remotely is likely a key impetus for many employees to quit office jobs in favor of remote work opportunities.
Contemporary baby clothing consumers assume a baby clothing producer to have sensitive paid leave policies for mothers. Liu’s admitted refusal to bend to her employee’s needs was like stepping out on a stage and falling through a trap door. Because she was on video, there was no escape.
Valuing Consumer Sentiment
CEOs and their advisers cannot be blind to consumer sentiment. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows 61 percent of U.S. consumers believe business leaders intentionally try to mislead by saying things they know are false or only partially true. Consumer views of government and the news media are worse.
Strategic communicator Travis Claytor, writing for Spin Sucks, says, “As consumers become increasingly vocal and wiling to express their discontent on virtually any subject, brands are not only expected to deliver quality, but also to open their doors to transparency, fostering a genuine connection that goes beyond the transactional.”
“Meeting these elevated expectations has become a strategic imperative for brands aspiring to thrive in a world where authenticity is the currency of trust,” Claytor added. “And crisis situations put these values to the test. Audiences are interested in how well a crisis is managed and in the authenticity and transparency demonstrated throughout the process.”
“Failing to center a crisis response around the people affected,” he concluded, “can have profound consequences on a brand’s reputation.”
Consumer Reactions More Critical
It is unrealistic to expect consumer reactions to become less discerning or critical. If anything, they will be more demanding and less forgiving. For CEOs, this is a challenge and an opportunity, as Liu’s two video apologies demonstrate.
Going through the motions of an apology won’t cut through distrust. Chances sharply improve when a CEO apology looks and sounds sincere and sorry. But a successful apology isn’t enough. It needs to be followed up with follow-through.
Liu ordered an updated paid leave policy. Good but not necessarily good enough. To demonstrate a lesson learned, what about taking an active step such as adding on-site child care or a flexible hours approach to office work? Or how about becoming a vocal advocate for enlightened paid leave policies. Moves like this put action behind words, turning an apology into a to-do list. That’s how a crisis can be turned from a misstep into a step forward, how critics can be converted to loyal customers.
Anybody and most everybody make mistakes. Leaders need to admit and apologize for their mistakes. Smart leaders will seize the moment to go beyond sincerely owning the mistake and seeking ways to atone for the mistake. It’s a door to a different kind of business-customer journey where the currency involved is trust.
Kyte Baby Postscript
The company’s updated paid leave policies offer employees who have worked at the company for at least six months four weeks of paid parental leave and up to 22 weeks of unpaid leave. After 12 months of employment, employees qualify for eight weeks of parental leave and up to one year of unpaid leave.
The company website explained: “At Kyte Baby, we have dedicated our company to helping babies and families find comfort for nearly a decade. We are proud of our products, team and the community we’ve built along the way. As we continue to grow, so do our policies. We are excited to share our updated parental leave policy. We understand the importance of family and recognize parents’ vital role in nurturing and supporting their families. With this updated policy, we aim to foster a culture of support and inclusivity while ensuring all employees have the opportunity to be present during important moments in their lives.”