Misdirected public apologies?

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After reading last week’s coverage of an appearance by Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam at a sports banquet, it might appear that the embattled executive is more interested in publicly clearing the air with football fans than he is with the customers who finance his livelihood. While that’s likely not the case, public comments often can be misinterpreted, especially when the media and the FBI is involved.

Haslam, who is also majority owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, apologized to the team’s fans following a scholar-athlete dinner and promised to bring the city a winner. He was making his first public appearance in Ohio since the FBI raided Pilot Flying J’s headquarters April 15 in Knoxville, Tenn., as part of an investigation into an alleged fraud scheme.

“I apologize to the city of Cleveland, Northeastern Ohio and all Browns fans because the last thing we ever wanted to do as a new owner was detract from football and the Browns and just what a great football area this is, and so I apologize for that,” Haslam told the press after the event. “We feel badly about it, and we’re very comfortable we’ll work through this situation.” Haslam did not answer any questions while meeting with the media, including those about the FBI probe.

The FBI’s 120-page affidavit alleges members of Pilot’s sales team deliberately withheld fuel rebates from trucking companies to boost profits. Haslam since has said he was unaware that any of his employees were cheating customers and was deeply troubled by the assertions, calling them “sickening.” He has said he would apologize “face to face” with his customers and that he has personally spoken to “between 250 and 300” trucking companies – and that some customers have been paid money they were owed.

That’s a good start, but in the meantime, perhaps it would be best for Haslam to step out of the sports media spotlight for a spell and let his football executives handle the public apologies to Browns fans – and concentrate on more heartfelt public apologies with his customers and rebuilding corporate goodwill. After all, while Pilot Flying J may be in the major leagues at the nation’s interstate exits, it’s not the only game in town.