Man, I was shocked to see the CEO Jonathan Schwartz of a Fortune 500 company (Sun) publicly apologize to the blogosphere without being asked. In response to this blog post by Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg that critizes the Sun Startup Essentials program, Jonathan wrote this on his own blog:

…yes, I saw the entry written by Matt Mullenweg – and all I can say is… I’m really sorry, Matt. That’s not the way Startup Essentials is supposed to work. We screwed up, and you’re completely right to suggest if that’s the norm, we should kiss goodbye our aspirations of reestablishing our business in the startup community.

If there’s anything I can do to win a second chance, I’d like to know. I appreciate your first sentence.

Robert Scoble mentioned that “Now we know that this blog isn’t written by a PR team. I’ve never seen a PR team recommend apologizing in public for messing up a customer.” Traditionally, it’s certainly not been normal to bring attention to a mistake. This makes me wonder: Is the PR landscape changing? Well, I know blogs have had an effect on Public Relations by giving a voice to the little guy (all it takes for something to explode in the blogosphere is one person writing about it & one A-lister who finds it) – but I don’t think the change is really revolutionary yet.

What is revolutionary is a CEO who takes the initiative to respond very publicly to a user without being required. Many organizations would have responded in the comments of Matt’s blog if it came under criticism like this, but Jonathan took it one step further by including the apology in his own blog post. I think people (and PR professionals) are going to start realizing how much customer good will is brought by responding publicly and pro-actively admitting mistakes. So what if it brings more attention to the issue? Maybe the goal SHOULD be to bring more attention to customer complaints so as to improve the way a company operates. In my opinion, more and more companies are going to start taking this approach of building trust with their customers. And more and more CEO’s will be the ones doing it.

By the way, there was a great comment left on Jonathan’s post A CEO who blogs is rare. A CEO who publicly admits a mistake is priceless.

I can almost guarantee that the Sun Startup Essentials program is going to see huge changes in the way potential customers are handled as a result of this, which will improve Sun’s bottom line. Isn’t that a good thing?

  • Good post, and who doesn’t appreciate humility? The guy could have rattled off countless excuses but he wouldn’t have had a chance to make the impression he made with Matt in any other way. I agree. Watch for more of this.

  • Megan

    When I worked at Zopa our CEO at the time went onto the forum to make a public post. No public relationships firm behind it… just a candid response to an upset membership as a result of the introduction of fees. It calmed things down immensely.

    I think this will become increasingly common, most prominently with startups.

    Strong leaders know how to respond well.

  • Ah, humility. It had to be baked up and force fed to me as young business man. Over the years I’ve had a few instances in which honest humility went a long way. Years ago as the CEO of an ISP there were a couple of instances in which I had to e-mail several thousand people and apologize for mistakes. The flood of “hey don’t worry about it, thanks for being honest about it, my last ISP just lied to us and blamed it on the phone company” e-mails made me glad that I took the time to be phlegmatic* in how I approached a given situation. Great post Drew!

    (if you read other RE blogs you will realize this is said with “tongue firmly in cheek”)

  • Drew Meyers

    Humility goes a long way in my book.

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I’m sure this is a topic I’ll continue to cover every now and then.