While I never thought I’d be quoting Justin Bieber, it seems to be the theme of a handful of public figures and prominent businesses of late: “Is it too late now to say sorry?”
Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to not receiving apologies, and instead receiving patronising non-apologies and token comments.
It’s the business that’s ‘saddened to hear that a customer did not have their particular expectations met’ when their product caused injury.
It’s the MP who says they are sorry that not everyone at an event understood their (inappropriate, offensive, unfunny) jokes.
It’s the sports star who is ‘sorry if my actions offended anyone’ when they know their vulgar and racist comments did—understandably—offend many people.
And there’s big money in apologising. Big brands such as Facebook and Uber are spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns to apologise for wrongs and to try and win back trust.
I teach my four-year-old that a true apology:
- Is timely (be quick to say sorry when you have done the wrong thing)
- Says what you are sorry for
- Acknowledges how your actions have impacted the other person(s)
- Takes responsibility and ownership for what you have done and, if relevant, offer some sort of restitution (such as replacing what was broken)
And businesses and public figures would do well to learn this too, and balance it with consideration of legal implications. However, this balance needs to include being human, decent, and caring for customers/constituents.
Be quick to say sorry
If you are responsible for a bad outcome or failing to deliver on your duty, then you should act quickly and apologise. Minister Hunt’s apology would have a better chance of being seen as genuine if it were timely – not six months after the incident and to try and reduce the fallout from media attention.
Perhaps the Commonwealth Bank of Australia would hold a little more trust if their apology and promise for change did not come after criticism coming out of the banking Royal Commission. They were happy to continue their practices up until it drew negative attention.
Be quick to do the right thing, and make your apology timely.
Explain the incident
By apologising you are in a better position to take control of the situation. Consumers will be more likely to forgive a company if it speaks out, rather than remains silent.
Remember that if you are silent, people will fill that silence and it will usually be with negative implications, assumptions, previous comments, or even inaccurate assertions.
By not hiding behind silence, you have the opportunity to communicate your perspective, make the facts known, and show that you do care about your impact and your stakeholders.
This applies to wrong doing, crises, and even accidents and issues that you are not responsible for.
Acknowledge the impact
If an issue or tragedy has occurred and neither you nor your organisation is at fault, you can still state that you regret the situation and are saddened by it. You can contribute to making a situation right, even if you are not responsible for it, by offering support and care; customers look to you for that and expect it of you. This is a necessary element of your brand reputation as well.
Ultimately, if you are at fault and don’t offer a statement, it comes across as patronising and opens you up to a whole new level of criticism. It is literally a non-apology. Don’t try to make light of the situation or act like your actions have had little impact, for example, don’t offer ‘we are sorry if some customers experienced slight delays’ if a large number of customers experienced significant delays that had a big impact on them.
Some circumstances call for more than just a short written statement. If your business is at fault or a tragedy has occurred, connect with your stakeholders, show that you care, put a face to your brand. One way to do this is to have an apology and a statement given by a spokesperson on video, and have that person answer questions.
Make it right
People want to know that you are sincere, will do what you can to make it right (or as best as possible), and are doing all you can to avoid it happening again.
For example, if an incident has come to light that occurred in the history of your organisation that was before your time, the response should not be silence (because it wasn’t your fault), or to say “it wasn’t me”.
Instead, express your genuine feelings about the incident – after all, your brand was attached to it and people are looking for you to care. If those responsible are silent, the pressure will be even greater on you because people want somewhere to direct their anger. Explain that it was prior to current leadership, and go into detail to explain why your processes, staff, policies, safeguards, standards are strong to prevent a recurrence.
And if your business is at fault for a recent issue, for example during a product recall or when you didn’t deliver all you promised, an apology is not enough. Here’s where the offer of restitution comes in.
Set up communication channels with your stakeholders to respond to concerns; this might involve setting up a team to answer questions on the phone and via email, and sharing information on social media and your website. Provide updates and, when resolved, give assurances of what has changed. This process must give stakeholders an opportunity to trust or at least respect your brand again.
While you cannot anticipate every negative incident that might require an apology, every organisation and public figure can work with good public relations teams to prepare for possible issues.
This can involve:
- putting together an internal response plan
- writing media holding statements (a holding statement is a statement that you literally hold on to and keep confidential – it is just in case something must be said to media)
- media training for key spokespeople
- preparing communication for various stakeholders, and this varies depending on the potential scenario and the audiences.
Do the right thing
Bottom line: As an organisation, seek to do the right thing. Be human and don’t ignore your stakeholders or behave indifferently to them—after all, their continued custom is what keeps your business going.
And no amount of PR can help limit the damage caused by someone who refuses to do the right thing. In fact, a good PR professional won’t even try.