Corporate America queues up to say sorry

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The Independent US

American television commercials tend to be brief, brutal and direct. If you had switched on your television at peak evening viewing time this week, though, you could have been in for a surprise. In separate adverts, two luminaries of corporate America strode into the foreground of the screen not to peddle their products, but to say they were sorry.

American television commercials tend to be brief, brutal and direct. If you had switched on your television at peak evening viewing time this week, though, you could have been in for a surprise. In separate adverts, two luminaries of corporate America strode into the foreground of the screen not to peddle their products, but to say they were sorry.

"I'm Jim Goodwin," says a middle-aged gent, "chairman of United Airlines." Goodwin, as the angle widens, is walking down the aisle of one of his company's planes, and it's empty. "This summer," he says, "thousands of people had their travel plans disrupted while flying United Airlines." (Remember, this is an advert.) "If you were one of them, I want to apologise personally on behalf of United."

And what are they doing about it? "To deal with the problem, we're reducing our flight schedule, so we don't make promises we can't keep." Well, aggrieved customers might say, better late than never. But why did you schedule so many flights if you couldn't staff them? This week, Mr Goodwin was joined by Jacques Nasser, chairman and chief executive of Ford. Mr Nasser strides down the corridor of Ford's corporate headquarters outside Detroit. He, too, brings an apology; not quite as abject or unconditional as that offered by his United counterpart, but an apology none the less, and a promise.

His task is to reassure drivers of Ford Explorers, who learnt three weeks ago that the tyres on their cars could be unsafe. When the Firestone company announced that it was recalling certain types of ATX and Wilderness tyres, there was an immediate knock-on effect on Ford. The tyres that had proved so dangerous were fitted as standard on Ford Explorers sold in the US.

The subsequent slanging match between Ford and Firestone offered Explorer drivers scant consolation. While Ford insisted that the fault was a "tyre issue, not a vehicle issue", Firestone said that the design of the Ford Explorer was at least partly to blame. Ford, the tyre company claimed, had told drivers to inflate the tyres less than Firestone advised, because otherwise the cars were liable to roll over on sharp turns. With the estimate of US fatalities linked to Firestone tyres and Explorers now pushing 90, both companies are threatened with criminal charges in Venezuela (where a similar but worse problem has emerged).

Enter Mr Nasser to give "his personal guarantee" that all 6.5 million Firestone tyres subject to the recall would be replaced just as quickly as possible. It's not just you who are suffering, he implies; the company is, too: Ford has halted car production at some plants so as to increase the availability of tyres. "I want all of our owners to know that there are two things that we never take lightly: your safety and your trust."

United and Ford are the latest in a line of companies to follow the advice of the public relations experts and apologise if something goes wrong. Coca-Cola (over allegedly contaminated bottles), Alaska Airlines (after its crash last year), and Intel (over its faulty Pentium chip) have all apologised. In politics, the prize belongs to Bill Clinton's apology over Monica Lewinsky. In corporate life, however, it is still rare for the top man to broadcast his personal apology on television.

Whether it salvages the reputation - and market share - of the corporate giants is another matter. Frustrated United passengers are openly vowing never to fly them again.In cars, as in tyres, American consumers have a wide choice and it is a fairly safe bet that the market share taken by Explorers, and their resale value, will fall.

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