The Optus data breach apology disaster

The Optus data breach has provoked many reactions – from disgust to dismay.

The full page ads the company placed in newspapers around Australia had a cloying insincerity that would have embarrassed Uriah Heep.  It included phrases that could only have been workshopped by a group of people who had no experience in expressing thoughts with any authenticity – or any sense of real contrition- while being overlooked by the company’s lawyers.

Indeed, a bit like far too many managers around the world

Bill Shorten nailed it when he said: “I acknowledge that they had a full- page newspaper ads in the paper on the weekend, but an ad is not a strategy. An ad is not a plan.”

But the best response was from one of Australia’s leading issues management specialist’s Tony Jaques who analysed the crisis response in one of his regular Managing Outcomes columns. It explains exactly why it was such a disaster and some of the history of successful and unsuccessful apologies. It’s reproduced here with his permission:

Paid apology ads generally smack of desperation — doubly so this one, which came more than a week after the hack happened and smacked of the impersonal, legally vetted tone of communications professionals writing on the CEO’s behalf. The column said:

More than a week after hackers compromised the personal data of millions of Australians, someone at Optus thought it would be a great idea to publish full-page newspaper apologies.

But why? Who thinks a paid apology advertisement communicates anything worthwhile? Generally, it suggests desperation and a lack of imagination rather than sincerity.

There are some very famous corporate apologies which won universal praise and will be continue to be cited in crisis study for years, such as Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle after two employees filmed themselves doing disgusting things to food; Starbucks boss Kevin Johnson when two Black men were arrested in one of his stores; AirAsia owner Tony Fernandes expressing genuine empathy after Flight QZ8501 crashed into the Java Sea.

But in each case it was the top executive speaking personally on camera in the heat of the crisis, not some carefully written and legally vetted words put together by communication professionals on the CEO’s behalf and published days later.

That certainly seems to be the case with Optus.

The idea of apologising via a paid advertisement is a lazy concept which has been around for a long time. It seems particularly fashionable in the banking industry. The CEO of NAB published a hand-signed letter in major newspapers promising to “make things right” after a server error left thousands of businesses unable to operate. Westpac took out full-page newspaper ads to apologise for unreported foreign funds transfers which may have helped facilitate child exploitation. And Deutsche Bank paid to apologise for past legal troubles

Of course, the bankers are not alone. Rupert Murdoch signed full-page apology ads after his company’s phone-hacking scandal, and Mark Zuckerberg — despite controlling one of the world’s most influential and persuasive social media platforms — chose a full-page letter published in newspapers to promise consumers the company would “do better for you” after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.

Although such costly advertisements might attract momentary media attention, and maybe appease investors, there is little evidence they have any positive impact on a questionable reputation. Just look at the banks.

One notable exception was the cheeky ad placed by KFC in Britain when a logistics failure left hundreds of stores with no chickens. Its full-page apology ad, which featured an empty chicken bucket with the company’s logo rearranged as FCK, attracted attention around the world.

KFC later said: “The ad enabled us to say sorry with a big platform, in a way that felt human and bold” — which is more than can be said for the stolid apology letters from Optus or the bank CEOs.

Of course, not every CEO is a great communicator, but every CEO should be a leader. Effective crisis management is about leadership, and a paid apology advertisement is no substitute.

The decision by Zuckerberg to choose newspapers over his own social media mega-platform raises the question whether the rise of social media has had any impact on the apparent belief in the effectiveness of traditional newspaper advertising to get a corporate message across. Who is the audience? Presumably not the millions of people who have long ceased to read newspapers.

Yet the full-page intervention by Optus seems to suggest that a large-format print advertisement in a newspaper is still regarded — without much evidence — as a credible and trustworthy way of saying sorry by cutting through online clutter. Or it could simply be one of those “need to be seen to be doing something” knee-jerk responses which still find favour in some boardrooms. Or perhaps it’s just an old-fashioned idea whose time has run out.

Or maybe, as my friend and crisis management colleague Gerry McCusker has said: “It’s better than doing nothing… but not by a massive amount.”