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In crisis management, sorry seems to be the hardest word

June 3, 2014 by Alex Johnson

I wouldn’t normally look to Sir Elton John for crisis management training tips but in this instance he’s spot on. Many organisations struggle to give meaningful apologies when things have gone wrong and, as a result, risk damaging their reputation. We’ve all been on the end of good and bad apologies – here’s my list of four ‘sorrys’ that make me cringe, roll my eyes or, worst of all, downright angry….

1)   The non-apology apology

The art of sounding like you are apologising without actually doing so:

‘Who got cheated? The fans, my friends, the foundation, other people who came in the crosshairs. They got cheated. And I’m very sympathetic to that’. 

Lance Armstrong almost sounding like he was sorry for his previous misdemeanours without actually saying so.

2)   The feeling sorry for myself apology

Why worry about who you’ve upset when you can make yourself feel better? Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor gave us a classic example: ‘With today’s announcement, I know I embarrassed everyone in this city and I will be forever sorry.

‘There is only one person to blame for this and that is myself. I know that admitting my mistake was the right thing to do and I feel like 1,000 pounds have been lifted off my shoulders.’

3)   The late apology

If you are late to the party it almost is irrelevant what you say – the sheer tardiness of the apology becomes the story.

It took a week for frozen food manufacturer Findus to issue a statement after being made aware there was a problem with its products during the horsemeat scandal of 2013. Too long for a story that was changing by the hour.

4)   The inadequate apology

Chevron Corporation shows how vital it is that an apology matches the severity of the incident. An explosion at one of their wells in a rural community in Pennsylvania left one dead and a fire that raged for over 5 days.  Their apology? A letter with a free coupon for pizza and a 2-litre soda.

With so many examples of the less than perfect apology out there, how do you get it right?

  • Be genuine. Whether you are issuing a statement or being interviewed, make your apology real and heartfelt. Avoid using legal or corporate language. Use words and expressions you are comfortable with. Crisis media training is a good way to test how your words will sit with your audience.
  • Remember who you are apologising to. If you were in their shoes what would you want to hear?
  • Be careful who you take advice from. Some experts may counsel you that issuing an apology is a sign of weakness or tantamount to admitting liability. It isn’t – it’s about recognising a human need for understanding and empathy.
  • Be timely – say it when it needs to be said. Don’t wait until you know exactly what has happened or opponents are hounding you to say sorry. Stay on the front foot.

You can’t ‘teach’ someone to apologise – the best ones come from the heart. But, as part of crisis communication training you can learn the principles that should guide all of your communications during difficult times – apologies included.

1 JULY 2014: Update 

After days of waiting the Suarez apology has finally appeared – precisely worded but lacking any real empathy and arriving too late to have the impact it needed. The words are particularly jarring when seen alongside his earlier FIFA testimony about the incident. What do you think? Does this carefully scripted apology really deliver?

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