How to say sorry and safeguard your reputation
Saying sorry is hard. Numerous academic studies have documented the way in which human egos resist the all-encompassing vulnerability of admitting that we did wrong. But apologising is also incredibly important and a powerful tool for safe-guarding corporate reputation. This paradoxical combination is why we are currently experiencing an apologetic crisis.
In their recent book, The Apology Impulse, Cary Cooper and Sean O’Meara document an uptick in apologising: in January 2018 there were 35 public apologies (more than one per day!) from high-profile organizations and individuals. In 2017, a group that includes Facebook, Mercedes Benz and United Airlines issued more than 2,000 words of apologies. The problem? The word 'sorry' didn't appear once. Cooper and O’Meara diagnose that “anxious PR aficionados and social media teams [are] dishing out apologies with alarming frequency” and yet many of them do so very badly.
A bad apology is worse than none. If you doubt me, then just consider the apology issued by Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. So awful was it that the following day he had to issue an apology for his apology. If you google Hayward’s name you will find that the most common search phrase is “Tony Hayward sorry”.
How can you avoid messing up when the stakes are high and the cameras of the world are upon you? Here is a playbook for issuing a great corporate apology:
1. Consider not apologising. Only apologise if you believe you are responsible and you are genuinely sorry. If you think you are being unfairly blamed that is a very different statement. Never confuse the two.
2. Say sorry. Yes. You have to say that you are sorry. Not “I’m sorry if…” not “I’m sorry but…”. You cannot imply that you are sorry or talk around the topic. If you are going to bother apologising at all then do it and do it properly.
3. Say sorry in multiple ways. Marriage counsellor Gary Chapman explains that not everyone needs to hear the same kind of apology. That means to ensure you are getting your message across effectively, you need to cover off five different types of apology in your statement:
Expressing regret (in detail – showing that you understand the harm you caused)
Accepting responsibility (admitting you were wrong)
Making restitution (putting things right, or repaying the hurt person symbolically)
Genuinely repenting (striving not to repeat your mistake)
NB: If you cannot do these things then I refer you back to point one.
4. Apologise to the right people. Blanket apologies are horrible. One way of demonstrating that you understand what you did wrong is to make it clear who you are apologising to: not the commentators who are making your life miserable right now, nor the regulators breathing down your back, but the people who were harmed by your actions.
5. Show leadership and authenticity. If the problem is big then the boss needs to be involved and they need to look like they genuinely care. This doesn’t always have to mean a po-faced corporate presser. Depending on your brand profile and the severity of the problem, it might be appropriate to issue an apology on social media or in an advert: think Apple apologising by tweet to Taylor Swift or KFC’s cheeky ads after they ran into major supply issues. But note, that tweet apologising for new terms and conditions for artists on Apple Music came from Eddy Cue – a member of Apple's executive leadership team. For the big stuff, very little can beat a heartfelt apology from the top dog: Forbes has collated some great examples HERE.
6. Be loud and proud. Once you have taken the big decision to apologise, don’t hide it. Broadcast your apology everywhere. If you have already accepted the need for saying sorry then being mealy-mouthed and hiding it on your corporate web-page is pointless. Push this message like it was a new product launch.
7. Repetition. This point is a bit more nuanced. If your mistake was part of your core business then you should own your apology like a medal. Wear it everywhere. Talk about it constantly. Be proud. For example, since VW’s diesel scandal, I haven’t seen a single interview with their executives when they didn’t bring it up themselves, not prompted by the interviewer. The same can be said for BP under their new chief executive; they are desperate to talk about climate change. The exception to this rule is for non-core business where there is a lot to be said for a brief ‘mea culpa’ and then swiftly moving on to other matters. Your spirit animal here would be PwC after their mistake led to the Oscar for Best Picture being awarded to the wrong film.
8. You don’t get any sympathy. The final lesson brings us back to Tony Hayward. You don’t get to play the ‘poor me’ card. That means no “I want my life back” and no explanations about how the market conditions forced you to make bad decisions. This statement is about you only to the extent that you are admitting you messed up and explaining how you will make it right. If you need validation and sympathy, find it elsewhere: maybe group therapy for your board?
We help leaders to measure and improve the reputation of their organisations. Want more examples of good and bad apologies? Need advice on how to get this right? Get in touch.
Prefer your advice via your headphones? Try our new podcast: Why Everybody Hates You