Some Thoughts On: The Art Of Sorry

It was clear that Graza had stuffed up.

Graza is a olive oil company that is suffering major pains as a result of the best kind of problem: extreme growth. They are a team of 5 people, and in the lead up to Christmas 2022 they filled over 35,000 orders. Unfortunately many of those arrived dented, faded, mis-packaged and delayed.

So the CEO said sorry.

No qualms, no PR filters, no BS. Just: “we let you down, here’s how, here’s why, we’re sorry, and here’s what we’re doing about it”.

There was no corporate speak, and there were even a few typos. It was an honest letter from a man who cares about his business and customers.

And it worked.

Soon the CEO received close to 1000 replies to his email thanking him, and suggesting they weren’t going to use his provided discount code on their next order. Trust was restored.

Let’s contrast that with the recent debacle that Hasbro-owned Wizards of the Coast (WotC) have had these last few months over their Dungeons and Dragons ‘Open Gaming License’ (OGL). The OGL is the thing that allows third parties to produce and sell supplementary content for Dungeons and Dragons (which has grown into a massive, multi-million dollar industry).

Way back in 2000, the original OGL was designed to be irrevocable and open. The idea was that third party content only improved the experience for customers, and was, in general, positive for the industry as a whole

However, in late 2022, it seems that the money raked in by third parties was suddenly a little too appealing. WotC, seemingly out of nowhere, sent new OGL terms to their third party partners. The terms were more restrictive, monopolistic, and in some cases predatory.

…The terms were soon leaked to the D&D community.

The outroar that followed was huge. The betrayal spread like wildfire. Some ‘insider’ WotC staff fuelled the fire with quotes like: “WotC execs see the community not as people, but as an obstruction to their money”. Soon orchestrated protests via mass unsubscriptions from the online D&D platform commenced. The idea was to ‘hit them where it hurts – their wallet’.

WotC quickly went into crisis control. First they released a typical corporate PR statement. “Blah blah blah, we are misunderstood and you are over-reacting, blah blah, we value our customers, etc.”

But the unsubscriptions continued.

So WotC tried again, this time the statement was from someone with a real name (not an amorphous corporation), and it came with a tangible sorry. Did it work?

Kind of.

It was still too corporate, still upheld the party lines, and was still obviously a crisis-management move by PR. It was generally better received, but it was too little, too late. Community trust had been badly damaged. What did work, however, was the actions by WotC that came with it. They withdrew the OGL revisions, and went even further – placing the entirety of D&D’s core game into creative commons. This meant that it will now forever be available for everyone to use, build on, and play. (A net-loss for WotC’s IP ownership.)

The Takeaway

The takeaway here is a quote from Mr Benin, CEO of Graza:

“Communicate like a person, not as a business.”

This is even more important when you get it wrong.