Illustration of Air Canada crisis

The Value of Saying I’m Sorry … from a Canadian

February 27, 2024

If you’ve spoken to me for more than five minutes, you know I’m Canadian – also American – but I was Canadian first and very proud of it. Every stereotype of Canadians includes that we like to say sorry: to each other, visitors, inanimate objects, and so on. Move away for a while and you’ll quickly realize that it’s true. Canadians are by and large nice, polite people. The same can’t be said about their major corporations. 


If Canadians can say sorry, why can’t their major brands?


This thinking was spurred on by a story about Air Canada refusing to admit they were wrong until they were taken to court. They had started using AI to do customer service and when a bereaved customer followed the AI direction and tried to get reimbursed by Air Canada, he was told he should have read more of their website because the AI was wrong — THEIR AI. He had to take them to court, which is rare in Canada, to admit they were wrong. Over a simple airline ticket. 


Another example is Bell Media. When Lisa Laflamme, a long-time, revered news anchor, was fired because she refused to color her hair, not only did Bell not apologize for the mistake, they promoted the guy who made the decision. This was in the face of widespread outrage from viewers and protest from advertisers. 


For these companies, they are more secure in their place in the market because there really are only two national airlines and no more than five media companies. Competition is not their biggest fear; neither are their customers going to the competition. 


So here is a lesson for U.S. companies, especially those deploying AI: take a lesson from the Canadian people, not their companies. When you mess up — apologize; and do it sincerely. It’s as simple as that. 


At Kith, we say there are three types of crisis: strategic, preventable, and external. Here is how we describe them:


  1. Strategic is something like new Coke or Chick-fil-A’s cauliflower sandwich. Good ideas, but not super successes. Say oops and move on. 
  2. External is something like a stock market crash, hurricane. This is one where you are in this together with your stakeholders and the community at large. Empathize, contribute, and recover. 


I tackled these tasks randomly and skipped listing preventable incidents. This was intentional because both Bell and Air Canada are examples of preventable self-inflicted harm that could have been avoided. During their reputational crisis, there were many instances where they could have reconsidered their approach and done the most important thing an organization can do in such situations: apologize.


Here is the formula: apologize, fix the problem, and assure your stakeholders that it won’t happen again. And make sure that every word is true. 


As the leadership team, it is your job to ensure that the fixes are made so your apology is true. Ensure that your direct reports know that they need to fix the problem and that you’ll be checking in on the progress. Create a public timeline of milestones that you want to reach and hold yourselves accountable. 


Sometimes there are legal reasons why you can’t follow our advice (we talk about the delicate dance between legal and communications on our blog), but those should be few and far between. I can tell you that even with legal advice, no one tells you to double down on your mistake. That lands you on international news. 


Here’s the flipside. Two weeks ago, I had to return some makeup from the new brand Ogee (contrary to popular belief, I’m very sensitive) but the shipping label was about to expire. I’d been so busy that my last chance was to throw it in the mailbox before I headed out the door to the airport and a week in St.Louis. I was so relieved as I watched the mail carrier pick it up. 


That relief was short-lived when I walked back into my office and saw the box of makeup sitting on my desk. I had sent them a box of notecards. In my defense, they looked remarkably similar. 


Never-the-less, customer service returned the notecards, was very kind about the makeup and I posted to Instagram about the experience. They reshared it. 


In this case, the mistake was mine, I apologized profusely ( I am Canadian after all), and the company still made it right. Now I will gift their product and everyone who follows me and them knows they are a good company that cares about their customers. 


Counter that with everyone in Canada knowing that Air Canada will continue their legacy of horrible customer service, never admitting they are wrong and certainly never making it right, and above all, wishing for more airline choice. 


Who do you want to be? 

Need help? Kith facilitates crisis preparedness workshops that will help your company attain the clarity, trust and speed you need to respond confidently – no dithering! – to any crisis. We’d be happy to have a conversation about how we can help your company be ready to chart an effective course to reputation protection. Is your business ready to handle a crisis? Take our Crisis-Proof Your Business quiz and gain valuable insights to prepare your business for any crisis.

Stephanie Craig

Stephanie Craig has built her reputation as a crisis expert by guiding some of the world’s most prominent people and organizations through their most trying moments. Before Kith, Stephanie founded the Apeiron Strategy Group where she counted former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and the mayor of the nation’s 10th largest city as clients.