How a company apologizes can make things better—or worse
Hassan Merali // Contributor
Sara Nguyen // Art Director
When Sam Anderson revealed in a tweet that her former company Hootsuite had signed a three-year contract with United States Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the backlash was swift. Many took to social media to voice their displeasure that Hootsuite was working with an agency that has come under fire in recent years for its conduct, including separating children from their mothers. As any company in the age of conscious consumerism must, Hootsuite quickly reversed course and apologized, while promising to cancel its contract with ICE. However, when CEO Tom Keiser addressed the matter in his public statement, he undercut his own apology and made everyone question why this had happened in the first place.
In his apology, Keiser referenced Hootsuite’s longstanding “belief in the power of communications and social engagement to break down barriers.” This was, to put it mildly, a poor choice of words. That phrase could be a standard description that Hootsuite uses when it talks about its corporate values, but in this situation it’s ironic. Hootsuite believes that its product can help break down barriers, but agreed to work with a government agency dedicated to upholding and enforcing borders, which are man-made barriers. This comes at a time when ICE and other US agencies are tasked with building President Trump’s wall along the border. Whoever is doing crisis communications for Hootsuite right now should have read their statement more carefully.
Keiser also mentioned that a committee had been formed within the company to take a look at whether or not Hootsuite should work with ICE. Forming a committee was the right way to handle such a contentious decision, but a damning thing to disclose given the outcome.
Hootsuite is also a Certified B Corporation, which are businesses that “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose[…].” Apparently, a majority of the people on the committee tasked with evaluating whether or not Hootsuite should work with an organization like ICE knew this and decided to recommend the contract anyway. One has to wonder about the judgement of the people involved in making this decision, as the values of Hootsuite and ICE seem to be in stark opposition to one another.
Another thing Anderson mentioned was that over 100 Hootsuite employees had vocalized their opposition to the contract, including people at Hootsuite’s Mexico City office—some of whom had personal interactions with ICE. Yet in Keiser’s statement, he said, “the decision has created a divided company, and this is not the kind of company I came to lead.” Was Keiser okay with his company being divided before this news leaked, and only concerned about division after it became public? Or did he not know that there was this kind of turmoil going on right under his nose?
All three blunders in Hootsuite’s apology—the ironic wording of their corporate values, the revelation of the greenlight committee, and the professed desire of company unity—raise questions of sincerity and competence of the company’s management. Some might say that no apology is perfect, and that these questions are bound to come up anyway; they’re wrong. When it comes to apologies, a second set of eyes can go a long way.