CEOs' summer fashion -- the hair shirt

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Who's sorry now?

August featured a parade of penitent CEOs -- including United Airlines' James Goodwin, Ford Motor Co.'s Jacques Nasser and Bridgestone/Firestone's Masatochi Ono -- spinning crises ranging from frequent flight delays to fatal car accidents. Verizon Communications, which faced a strike just as it launched a new corporate identity campaign, broke a newspaper ad Aug. 25 to apologize to consumers for any inconvenience during the stike.

Mea culpas put companies in the tough spot of drawing attention to problems in order to solve them, but that's a necessary step, observers believe.

"There's a greater risk in not acknowledging the problem [and] by your silence, implying you're not taking it seriously," said Bill Lyddan, president-CEO of corporate advertising specialist Brouillard Communications.

When your product's failure leads the evening news, the choice to act is not yours anymore, said Debby Goldberg, U.S. director of marketing at consultant Interbrand Corp. "If you're out there with your head in the sand, people are going to question your hold on reality," she said.

A PERSONAL APOLOGY

A United spokesman agreed. The airline broke ads starring Mr. Goodwin after massive flight tie-ups. In TV spots, the burly executive strolls the aisle of a plane to "apologize personally on behalf of United" to passengers.

"It was pretty clear that we weren't running a reliable operation," the United spokesman said. "We made a decision it was important to let our customers know that we were completely focused on bringing our operation up to acceptable levels."

But a damage-control plan also needs concrete steps to rectify the situation, such as Ford's closing plants temporarily to reduce demand for tires, Ms. Goldberg said. "[Advertising] has to be part of an overall strategy to show people you mean what you say."

J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, did print and TV production for Ford; Ogilvy & Mather, Dearborn, Mich. wrote the TV scripts. Firestone said Grey Worldwide, New York, the marketer's agency of record, did not develop these ads.

The goal of the Firestone ads is "to get information to consumers to make sure they're aware of which tires are involved in the recall," said a spokeswoman.

But experts criticized Firestone's public response as a day late and a dollar short, especially when compared with Ford's.

"If you diagrammed how not to react to something like this, Firestone is it," said Tom Kinnear, marketing professor at the University of Michigan. Firestone was late in airing ads explaining the recall, while "United and Ford are in-your-face," he said.

Ms. Goldberg also contrasted the tone of Ford's pitch with Firestone's. Ford's ads ran through the steps the automaker is taking, while the tire maker listed steps consumers had to take.

`PUTTING OUT A FIRE'

"That's not about ensuring customer loyalty over time. It's about putting out a fire," she said.

If a company has a record of responding to its customers and acts decisively, consumers will give it the benefit of the doubt, Mr. Lyddan said. "America is a forgive-and-forget country. What America doesn't like is someone who doesn't own up."

Contributing: Tobi Elkin, David Goetzl, Jean Halliday.

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