Corporate calamities are a great time to observe business communication in action and to analyze the substance and style of a company's response to a crisis. Apologizing and offering restitution are among the more challenging communication tasks during such times, partly because these messages can be a challenge to write in and of themselves, and partly because the negative communication takes place within the company's ongoing (and generally positive) conversational stream with its stakeholders.
Striking the right balance is often difficult. On the one hand, you have to be sufficiently humble and contrite in front of angry customers—without wallowing in negativity. On the other hand, you have to find some way to move the conversation forward and nudge it back onto a positive track—without acting as though nothing happened or that you've already forgotten about it and moved on. For example, how much do you have to beat yourself up in public to show remorse, and how soon is it appropriate to shift from "apology mode" back to business as normal?
Research in Motion (RIM) is an interesting case of a company searching for that balance while trying to turn the public dialog around. After recent global service outages that left millions of BlackBerry users without email and web access for up to three days, RIM had to soothe angry customers while continuing to push forward with positive communication on other fronts. Those ongoing communication efforts are challenging enough on their own, as RIM tries to battle declining share and become a mass-market must-have in the face of strong competition from Apple's iPhones and smartphones based on Google's Android operating system. To make matters worse, the service outage hit just as Apple was introducing its latest phone and RIM was preparing for its annual developers' conference, where one of its tasks is convincing software companies to create more apps for the BlackBerry line.
The postings on RIM's Facebook page offer a convenient (if incomplete) way to track its outgoing communication efforts. Here is the essence of the first 10 messages that appeared after service had been restored around the world:
(1) October 13: Announcing that service has been fully restored
(2) October 14: Expressing thanks to customers for their patience and support, directing them to BlackBerry's Twitter account if they need support
(3) October 17: Announcing a "Thank You Gift from BlackBerry," a series of free software apps that will be made available to current customers over the next four weeks, with a total value of more than $100; more details to come
(4) October 18: Promising more info to come on the free apps, but announcing a new operating system for BlackBerry smartphones and tablets
(5) October 19: Announcing that the first free app is now available
(6) October 20: Announcing that the second free app is now available
(7) October 20: Posting a video that promises to answer the question "how extreme is gaming is on the BlackBerry PlayBook?"
(8) October 21: Announcing updated Twitter capability for BlackBerry smartphones
(9) October 21: Encouraging customers to continue sharing comments, saying "We love hearing your feedback, Team BlackBerry"
(10) October 24: Announcing the winners of a meet-the-celebrity contest (unrelated to the outage or the free apps program)
The substance of the free app program is open to question—for example, more than a few Facebook commenters weren't too impressed with getting a $5 game (and a frankly rather juvenile-looking one at that) as the second app, and some complained that they should've been able to choose the apps themselves. In addition, by stretching out the delivery of the apps over a period of four weeks, rather than making them available all at once, RIM is forced to keep the story of the outage alive, because the announcement of each new app will remind customers of the service problem. (Although it might've been staged this way to prevent overloading the app store, or for some other viable technical reason.)
However, aside from these questions, RIM seems to have done a reasonably good job under the circumstances of addressing the communication issues related to the outage while pushing the dialog forward. The company simply can't afford to stand still or dwell on a problem that has been fixed, given the challenges it faces from Apple and the Android platform. For the first week after the outage (posts 1-3 and 5-6), the Facebook messages focused mostly on rebuilding goodwill with customers. Following that, the messages were all forward-looking announcements on other matters.
From the messages we've reviewed, RIM apologized in a straightforward, unemotional manner and identified the technical reason for the outage. Calling the free apps a "thank you" gift also puts a positive spin on the make-good effort. (Although thanking people for their "patience," when they had no choice but to sit and stew, is always a curious if perhaps unavoidable choice.)
We'd love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you are a BlackBerry customer who was affected by the outage.
Image: RIM media gallery