The Corporate Apology: Why “I’m Sorry” Is Just the First Step
- Posted by Poston Communications
- On September 21, 2020
- crisis communications
When a corporation in a crisis – where the public is outraged – seeks our counsel, we turn to our experience and the research as we walk them through the most effective response. Surin Chung writes in his 2011 study that companies that take an active responsibility in their apology relieve public anger more than those that take a passive responsibility. Chung asserts, “…an apology statement with passive responsibility may appear defensive or morally unacceptable to people.” But that apology is only the first step.
The First Step: Owning Your Mistakes
Harvard Business Review explored the so-called “apology dilemma,” and found there are psychological barriers that make apologies feel risky and uncomfortable. As we often see in delayed apologies, people are more apt to rationalize their actions in order to delay or avoid making an apology. Leaders, in particular, grapple with the inherit loss of power that comes with an apology and struggle with indecision over who is really responsible for the apology. Researchers questioned whether it is just for a CEO or organization to take the heat, even if they were not directly responsible.
Don’t Be the Next Case Study
Perhaps you recall BP’s Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward infamously commenting, “I’d like my life back” after 11 people were killed in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Or United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz all but dismissing a passenger’s injuries when he was forcibly removed from a flight, opting to use the word “re-accommodation.” These responses are now used as case studies of how not to respond to a crisis. One wrong move can put you on this list. So, why are so many organizations and their leaders reluctant to utter two simple words?
An Apology Filtered, or Clogged, by the Legal Lens
Even when organizations can come to terms with the public’s desire for accountability, many organizations view situations through a legal lens and become rightfully concerned with an apology’s impact on future liability. It is not uncommon for leaders to ask, “Will saying sorry now cost us a lawsuit in the future?” Our response is often – when an empathetic response is combined with thoughtful legal strategy – maybe not. Organizational leaders would be wise to consider future jurors as stakeholders and ensure their communications speak to the hearts and minds of those who will evaluate their actions. In fact, in many cases, the mere act of an apology can effectively mitigate legal risk, thwart a lawsuit or bring parties to the settlement table faster!
Crafting Your Message
The most effective apologies are direct, denial-free and include corrective action. Often, we see organizations make the mistake of apologizing not for the offense itself but for how people reacted to it – this is a bad look. Organizations should instead base their response on a candid and thorough assessment of the impact of the incident on their stakeholders. Empathize with them about the issue and offer a solution that will alleviate their negative response and reinforce confidence in your organization. But be careful not to overpromise or overstep your role, particularly when faced with existential or complex societal issues. You need to be able to deliver because stakeholders keep their receipts.
The Next Step: Fulfill the Promises in Your Apology and Recover Your Reputation
After issuing your apology, remember to continue communicating with your stakeholders. Actions speak louder than words, and organizations can rebuild and restore their image through positive reinforcement. Being ready with an aggressive public relations strategy on the backend can help you balance negative sentiment and recover lost customers.
While each situation is unique, one thing remains clear – organizations that want to build and maintain relationships with their stakeholders need to be accountable for their actions and open to apologizing. Working with a collaborative team that includes legal and communications counsel can help leaders assess each unique situation and determine the best route forward – both from a risk and reputational standpoint.
Megan Paquin is vice president at Poston Communications and leads the crisis and litigation PR team. She has been trusted to lead communications strategies for some of the world’s most respected brands. As a communicator, Megan thrives in complex, high-stakes situations and her counsel has proven essential to bolster the reputations of her clients.