Many Companies Are Bad At PR Because Nobody Knows How To Apologize

A few times a month somebody will send me a story about how someone is bad at PR, and taking seemingly the worst possible approach to a given situation. Peloton is the latest example, with a current shitstorm brewing over the fact that their Treadmill killed a child, with them refusing to reveal the name to the Consumer Product Safety Commission for nearly a month. The specific situation has also caused 38 other injuries based on the design of the tread, which has 59 slats that loop under itself to let you run on it - with the exposed treads at the front and back creating a sort of vacuum situation that can trap animals and people.

The correct way to deal with this would have been to make a compassionate, clearly-stated attempt at fixing the situation - actively compensating the family and making a proactive recall or addition to any tread, kind of like when Tesla added an aluminum shield underneath their cars. Peloton themselves have bitterly fought the idea of a recall, likely due to how expensive it would be to do and how bad their delivery network is, and their general response has been to say “this is super unfortunate, don’t let your kids near exercise gear.”

Now, I should be clear - they are 100% correct that small children should not be allowed near exercise equipment, but this does not mean that that should be the only response. Peloton’s CEO John Foley has had to write two letters to cover the subject, the second of which reveals the very specific information that the members in question requested that their information not be shared with the CPSC, who had to then subpoena the information.

He also included this fascinating little tidbid:

I imagine some Members asked for their information to be protected in order to avoid personal attacks like some that we’ve seen in response to the Tread+ incidents that CPSC publicized yesterday. Our hearts go out to Members who have had an incident where a child or pet was injured and who want their privacy at this time. As a parent myself, I hope that our Peloton community continues to treat each other with respect and compassion.

You may also have read news reports suggesting that CPSC believes that we should stop selling or recall the Tread+. I want to assure you that we have no intention of doing so. The Tread+ is safe when our warnings and safety instructions are followed, and we know that, every day, thousands of Members enjoy working out safely on their Tread+.

This is the classic Peloton playbook - appealing to the weird cult-like following as a “community” to cover up the fact that they didn’t do something, and turning this into a story about a parent being irresponsible versus a bad design decision, suggesting that, in fact, the person was simply “not working out safely.”

The Deny and Deflect Defense

This is the classic bad PR playbook that will eventually work out poorly for Peloton, in the same way it’s worked out poorly for other companies employing it - denial and deflection.

Companies believe that the right response is to deny something happened or deny that they’re at fault, and ideally choose someone else to be at fault. The assumption here is that if they don’t make any action that suggests they’re guilty - which includes but is not limited to apologizing or actually doing something about what happened - that they won’t be in trouble, because the public will not see them as at fault.

The problem with this response (which will keep happening forever) is that it’s based on the false logic that there is no way to make someone pay for a crime or a mistake if they don’t admit wrongdoing. The result is non-apologies and non-statements that end up being rewritten and reissued until an actual apology is released, or they are legally forced to either apologize or take action.

When Uber suspended their entire autonomous car program in Arizona after a pedestrian was killed before any fault was attributed to Uber (they were eventually found at fault), they likely did so because, even if they weren’t at fault it was a necessary move - and I am loathed to call Uber compassionate - to show that they actually gave a shit about people’s lives, and also avoid inevitable legal action that would follow.

The reason that most companies don’t operate like this is that they are tied into a complete societal fear of apologies. Think for a second about how many people have said “I’m sorry you feel that way” to you about something they’ve done wrong, and how enraging and disappointing that is - that statement is basically the entire corporate PR strategy when anything goes wrong. The assumption that most people make when they don’t apologize for something is that they’re not actually in the wrong, or that an apology - a real, asterisk-free apology - is some sort of indemnifying action that can be used against them in a future court of argument.

Corporate PR operates on this same philosophy, thinking that the many distractions of modern life and modern news will sweep away the bad memories, and that they can rely on their current fans to establish and hold the line for the brand. The issue with this approach is that it is one that works 100% of the time until it doesn’t (I brought this up with Trevor Bauer) - that every time you don’t satisfactorily address an issue with compassion and contrition you are basically taking on high-interest debt on your brand, and every time something goes wrong it gets worse and worse, and you must perform that bit better to retain customers.

An actual apology is tough - it requires bravery and self-awareness that many lack - but it ultimately builds trust with another person, or in this case a customer. This doesn’t mean there’s no cost to an apology - but the assumption is that there is no cost to not apologizing for something - that people will simply back you up that like you already, and that without cold hard proof, you’re going to be fine.

For Peloton, they may indeed be correct that this person was at fault for letting their kid play next to an extremely dangerous object. However, it will not be missed by customers that they did exactly nothing when this happened other than apologize, and when the CPSC is done investigating, I am 100% sure that they will pay - fiscally and otherwise - for not actually addressing this problem pragmatically and in a way that shows they care about their customers.

I get the legal fear about admitting any wrongdoing, but I fear it’s a learned cultural cowardice - the assumed weakness of an apology and the damnation that allegedly follows. Peloton not admitting they’re in the wrong won’t shield them from the inevitable class action suits that will follow this situation, and it will only portray them as cold, cruel and corporate. Their PR strategy to this point has mostly been to rely on the fact that they have managed to unlock parasocial relationships between their instructors and riders, focusing on creating more content over a better experience, and leaning into “protecting the community” by shielding information from the CPSC suggests that they believe their cult-like following will protect them.

Peloton assumes that they are protected by their fanbase, but also by the fact that they will be forgiven for these transgressions, framing the CPSC as an oppressor that is trying to get at their private information versus a governmental body attempting to find out why a child was killed. The problem is that their cult-like brand isn’t really based on something Peloton has actively done - it’s tied to the personalities on the platform, and thus tied to whether those personalities are retained and/or healthy.

The company has chosen to handle its first big scandal in such a way that shows anyone potentially buying a bike or a treadmill that, ultimately, they do not really care that much. Not apologizing - or at least not showing that they care enough to do something - sends a clear message to anyone who’s buying a Peloton product about what they’ll actually do as a company when the chips are down.

The “never apologize” strategy is so common because people are habitually scared of responsibility or contrition. It’s a symptom of a selfish society, one that prides itself on finding loopholes and “lifehacks” that help us get around problems rather than solving them, looking for “simple tricks” to be better without actually being better. We are taught about taking responsible actions like saving money or eating well, but we are rarely taught about taking responsibility for our actions. We are taught that apologies are just a form of weakness, and that the strongest of us never have a reason to apologize.

Ultimately you will pay the price for not doing so. It may take your entire life, but it’ll happen.