Are you following these six steps of a great apology?

Saying sorry is a crucial part of crisis communication.

Get it right and you can diffuse the situation, minimise the reputational hit and rebuild trust.

But when apologies go wrong, they can make the crisis worse.

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When Pepsi faced a backlash for an advert that appeared to trivialise the Black Lives Matter protests, it said: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize (SIC).”

And it was criticised for what many felt was an attempt to play down the mistake.

An apology we’ve featured before was the one issued by United Airlines when footage emerged of a bloodied passenger being dragged from one of its flights.

Its statement from CEO Oscar Munoz said: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize (SIC) for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

A few years on, and it is still breathtakingly poor.

So, how can brands avoid these missteps and get apologies right when they are in the spotlight?

Well, a new book offers a good starting point.

‘Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies’, written by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, contains advice that is relevant for adults, for children, for corporations, for institutions, for governments.”

And it breaks down great apologies into six steps.

Let’s have a look at them.


1 Say you’re sorry

This is a crucial one because brands often seem to find ‘sorry’ the hardest word to say – and it makes apologies sound insincere.

Often you might hear organisations – and individuals – talking about ‘regret’ or being ‘devastated’.

Another variation is “we would like to apologise”. When Boris Johnson addressed ‘partygate’ allegations in the House of Commons last year, he began by saying “I want to apologise”.

But wanting to apologise is not the same as apologising.

So, say you’re sorry. And say it first.

During our crisis communication training courses, we say that ‘sorry’ should be the first thing said by a spokesperson or in an interview.


2 Be specific

Corporate apologies often contain vague language and seem determined to avoid saying what has happened.

The United Airlines example we mentioned earlier used the phrase “re-accommodate”.

When Lufthansa – and I’m not purposely picking on airlines – apologised for preventing a large number of Jewish passengers from boarding a connecting flight because a “limited” number was not wearing face masks, it said it “regrets the circumstances surrounding the decision”.

You can often find statements that “apologise for any inconvenience” or “apologise for any misunderstanding”.

And brands can also rely on the word “incident”.

It was highlighted by the AP Stylebook, which updated its guidance on the word last week.

It said: “Try to avoid this term, which is vague and often used as jargon by police and others. Instead, be specific about what happened.”

Our advice is that for an apology to work, it must acknowledge what the problem is rather than try to talk around it.


3 Show you understand why your actions were harmful and hurtful, and the effect it had on the other person

We use the Media First acronym CARE during our crisis communication training courses to outline how organisations should respond.

It stands for Compassion, Action, Reassurance and Examples.

And there is a reason we put compassion first.

As Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Organisations must show concern and sympathy for those affected by a crisis, whether it is people who have suffered injuries or customers unable to access their accounts because of a computer glitch.

Putting people first in apologies and statements shows you understand the severity of what has happened and its impact.


4 Don't make excuses but offer an explanation if needed

An effective apology takes full ownership and responsibility for what has happened.

Often, we see brands apologise in such a way that appears to deflect some of the blame or fault on to others.

But the blame game is dangerous. Customers do not want to hear it, and it has the potential to make a crisis much worse.

And that’s why great care needs to be taken with explanations. The line between excuse and explanation tends to be thin – get it wrong, and it will detract from accountability.

Returning to the ‘partygate’ apology we mentioned earlier, you may recall it contained many excuses. In an extensive list, Mr Johnson said he believed it was a work event. He was only there for 25 minutes. No 10 is a big department. Its garden is in constant use because of the role fresh air plays in stopping the virus.

Those explanations were branded “ludicrous” and “ridiculous” by Sky News political editor Beth Rigby.


5 Say why it won't happen again. What steps are you taking?

We mentioned CARE earlier. And the ‘A’ for action is vital.

People want to know what you are doing to resolve the crisis and rectify the situation. And to try to prevent it from happening again.

It can be tricky in the initial stages of the crisis. But it could be as simple as stating you have launched an investigation, are reviewing procedures or are working with the relevant authorities.

It is tempting to promise it won’t happen again. But we would suggest you stop short of that. You could leave yourself a hostage to fortune and look foolish in the future.

Outlining what you are doing to reduce the chances of it happening again is a more comfortable middle ground.


6 Offer a fix or make reparations.

This step is probably more relevant for individuals.

But you do see organisations adopting this approach.

In the Lufthansa crisis we mentioned earlier, those affected received a letter from the CEO, which included a compensation offer.

When I was carrying out some mock interviews about an imagined data breach during a recent crisis communication course, a delegate said the company had paid for a service for those impacted that alerts them of any suspicious behaviour on their accounts.

So, it is something to consider as part of crisis apologies.


Other considerations

Is there anything organisations should add to these six steps?


During our crisis communication training, we stress the importance of speed.

If you have done something wrong, apologise early.

The faster you do it, the more control you are likely to have over the narrative.


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But what if the legal team advise you to stay quiet?

There can be a fear an apology is seen as admitting liability and could lead to pay-outs and lawsuits.

But this radio silence approach can cause reputational and commercial damage.

The Apology Clause campaign says brands should not fear admitting liability when saying sorry. It points to the Compensation Act 2006 which says: “an apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not itself amount to an admission of negligence of statutory duty.”

Those businesses who would prefer to take a cautious approach can still express sympathy, confirm they are launching an investigation and try to put an incident into context.


Should you apologise?

The other crucial consideration is whether you should apologise.

That may sound weird in a blog about effective apologies.

But the rise of social media seems to have caused an increase in brand apologies, with organisations keen to avoid boycott calls and social media storms.

There are obviously times when apologising is the right thing to do.

But There are other occasions where it feels like a default option deployed too quickly to stop the furious tapping of the keyboard warriors.

Not only can that lead to robotic-sounding apologies, but constantly saying sorry is not a good look.

And responding can amplify an issue that would otherwise quickly fizzle out.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our crisis communication training.

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