It is human nature for us to make mistakes now and again. You can try your hardest to prevent blunders in your personal and professional life, but something will come up eventually. When that time comes, it is important to own it and learn from it as opposed to attempting to cover it up.
Technology has made it even easier to make these missteps with email and social media being so permanent and global. If someone’s blunder is unfortunate enough to go viral, it can end up being seen by millions on the internet around the world. Patrick Coffee of adweek.com wrote of one man’s public relations snafu which ended up going viral after appearing on the local news in Sacramento, California.
Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for Air Canada, was asked to comment on a story involving a passenger’s lost dog (named Larry). Instead of taking the time to prepare a professional statement for the local news station, he wrote an email to a co-worker blasting the media and government as a whole. This might have been fine if Fitzpatrick hadn’t also copied the local reporter in the email. The email reads as follows:
“I think I would just ignore, it is local news doing a story on a lost dog. Their entire government is shut down and about to default and this is how the US media spends its time.”
The Sacramento CBS affiliate used Fitzpatrick’s email as a quote in their follow-up story, prompting a firestorm of social media backlash for Air Canada. The airline responded to the report a day later:
“Air Canada acknowledges inappropriate comments were made to a reporter’s follow-up questions regarding Larry. Air Canada has been providing the best available information to media on this matter. However, these comments do not refer to the search for Larry by Air Canada employees that is ongoing or our interest in returning him safely.”
This was not bad enough to be a fireable offense for Fitzpatrick, but the story posted by the CBS affiliate went viral. The post was shared on social media over 3,800 times and received almost 900 comments in just one day.
Air Canada did a good enough job of covering their tracks and distancing themselves from Fitzpatrick, but what is he to do? It is evident he did not mean for the email to get to the public, but the fact of the matter is that it did go viral and Fitzpatrick was receiving a lot of heat from animal activists on social media.
Fitzpatrick later responded to the story through The Toronto Star, saying “I guess I’m the poster child now for Be Careful With Email.”
Going the humor route can actually be very successful when trying to get back on the good side of the public. It has a way of humanizing you and making your situation more relatable. Light humor is the way to go if the mistake that occurred isn’t too heinous. Fitzpatrick’s email slip up, although certainly insensitive, was not a fireable offense and in this case poking fun at the situation did help him.
I would go a step further in Fitzpatrick’s case and issue a legitimate apology for the incident as well. Poking fun at a situation can help but an authorized statement is the professional thing to do. For the good of both yourself and your employer, it is important to cover all of your tracks. Social media news cycles quickly so if you take the correct steps after a public relations mishap you can simply wait for it to blow over.
The important thing to learn from Fitzpatrick’s email blunder is to be up front and open when things go wrong. Hiding or attempting to cover up a situation will only make things worse and can turn the social mediasphere against you. Of course, it would be easier just not to make a mistake in the first place. But we are all human, and things happen that we cannot predict or prevent.