We have already talked about how lightly brands need to tread in a world where everyone is watching, where companies have unprecedented access not only to an enormous raft of potential consumers, but also to the ever-vigilant eyes of potential critics. “Trial by Twitter” is a process that has found many brands guilty, and unfortunate gaffes are never far from mind. Take Waitrose’s social media misfire last autumn, where its “Reasons” campaign was hijacked and turned on its head by teasing tweeters. Rather than issuing an apology as such, they did feel they had to acknowledge the jocular nature of people’s reactions. Other brands to have faced similar cyber-ribbing have reacted in various ways, either by adopting a similarly ribald tone, or by going on an unrepentant offensive, as this blog post discusses. And we can’t forget the reaction to Nick Clegg’s apology video, which went viral last year and totally undermined his attempt to clear the air with the British electorate.
People around the world apologise in different ways. In Japan, the act of apologising is considered a virtue (more on this later). It is no surprise, therefore, that their language and culture have such a diffuse number of ways to express the sentiment of sorriness. The same cannot always be said of the West, where people can often be found saving face by issuing ‘apologies’ that are entirely devoid of any sincerity or meaning. Or the classic British reflex-action apology, where “sorry” is used so unsparingly that it is roughly akin to “hmmm”.
Whatever the ‘right’ approach, there can be little doubt that the apology is an important art when errors in communication are so easy and public. And things only get more complicated when that apology has to be made across cultures, where different conventions, traditions and politics, not to mention different languages, are at play. Last week, Apple found themselves issuing a public apology to their Chinese customers following criticism from state media outlets about the company’s warranty terms. The apology received extensive news coverage across the country, to the bewilderment of many Chinese people, who found the authorities’ glee at events somewhat baffling compared to the veritable silence over more significant matters of public interest. What was perhaps most interesting about Apple’s apology was the way it was worded – “At the same time,” they said, “we also realize that we have much to learn about operating in China, and how we communicate here.” In this knowledge, a comprehensive global communication audit might have saved any embarrassment, taking advantage of local expertise and insight to achieve a “finger on the pulse” – essential for survival in the modern technology jungle.
As we’ve already mentioned, the cross-cultural apology is a complicated process due to the linguistic, political and cultural considerations that need to be taken on board. Indeed, an episode at the end of 2012 shows the extent of the complications in China, with the reporting of an “apology” made by the new Leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping. When arriving late for a speech, he made a comment which literally translates as “made everyone wait a long time”. Does this mean “sorry”? According to the presiding English interpreter, it did. Later on, however, opinion was divided among observers, with some objecting to translations from various international media outlets that played up the “sorry” aspect, while others felt the literal translation – with its more unrepentant connotations – was appropriate.
An extreme example of how cultural conventions can differ came with the public apology offered by Japanese popstar Minami Minegishi following revelations that she had spent the night with her boyfriend. She appeared with a shaved head, begging the public for forgiveness in a traditional act of contrition.
There is no escaping the fact that, were the divas of Europe or the US to so flail themselves for such minor misdemeanours, the blogosphere would be utterly saturated. Yes, it might have been over the top and unnecessary, but it was also on some level based on cultural tradition.
These examples show the challenges faced by brands operating internationally, and the need for expert, sensitive cross-cultural communications strategies. Saying sorry is never easy. Saying sorry across a cultural divide is even harder…