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The power of an apology: Why saying sorry should not be your go-to crisis PR response

By Chris Gilmour

The first crisis management advice doled out to a firm in trouble is often that it should immediately apologise. I disagree. The first rule is: “Find out the facts.”

Too often, brands and individuals end up in the situation where they have said sorry in a crisis PR response when they have done nothing wrong or, worse still, apologised for someone else’s mistake.

But if you are apologising, you’d better be damn sure you mean it and that it’s more than a token gesture. A sincere apology means more than saying you’re sorry – it means making amends.

And there’s nothing more meaningless than an insincere apology.

Of course, I never apologise for anything because I am never wrong. My colleagues would disagree, but they’re wrong and I’m unapologetic in stating that. And as I start from that position of ultimate right-ness, any apology I’d make is grudging anyway.

Grudging apologies

There are a number of companies out there that have a track record of similarly grudging apologies – the old “I’m sorry … but they made me do it” routine. They just want to shut people up and move the debate on.

That kind of crisis PR response is like when you tell your kid to stop hitting his brother and they give you that snarky “sorry!” you know they don’t mean.

You often hear companies say they are very sorry that they had to make a decision. But businesses need to make difficult decisions every day and they don’t need to apologise for that, although being contrite or sympathetic when jobs are at risk is important.

There’s also no need to apologise when someone with a counter standpoint or belief is castigating you. If it’s your position, why say sorry?

There are few statements as hollow as: “We’re really sorry that you think that.” Nope, you disagree. It happens every day, in every walk of life. People who apologise for their opinion don’t mean it – and a false apology won’t change opinions or make you friends.

There are two particular apologies made by brands that really stick in my mind where I’d say there’s no need to apologise.

Coming under pressure

The first is the case of Paperchase last year. The stationer pulled out of a promotional deal with the Daily Mail after coming under pressure by the campaign group Stop Funding Hate.

It then apologised for having business dealings with a newspaper advertised in by leading brands and read by millions every day. Why apologise to small number of vocal people so offended by a paper’s politics they’ll run a campaign against a newspaper they’ll never buy? Paperchase never said it endorses the Mail’s politics; the two were in a business relationship.

Then just last month, Build-A-Bear apologised for the success of one of its promotions. The “pay-your-age” day saw queues that stretched the length of shopping malls and children left in tears when stores ran out of cuddly toys.

The chain ended up saying sorry because its promotion was a bigger success than anyone could have anticipated. Sure, remedy the situation and announce ways you’ll stop something similar happening again – but why apologise?

Anyone who was disappointed was entitled to a money-off voucher, and the people who were moaning had been out to get what they wanted ridiculously cheaply anyway.

My crisis management advice would have been not to apologise, just to treat disappointed customers fairly, which the company did.

Essential to say sorry 

That said, there are situations where it’s essential to say sorry.

Quite often in the aftermath of a tragedy or accident, lawyers will tell businesses not to apologise. They’re risk-averse and fear that an apology is an admission of liability. They are thinking in terms of lawsuits and jail time. But it’s possible to appear apologetic by the simple expression of sorrow while an official investigation is under way.

And once the dust settles and the investigations, inquests or court cases are at an end, those responsible simply have to put their hands up, say sorry, explain their reasons and say how they will change to ensure nothing like this happens again.

At the less serious end of the spectrum, if there’s been a clear human error, apologise to those affected. When it’s clear that you’ve done something wrong or that someone you’re responsible for ­– including the businesses in your supply chain – has made an error, you have to apologise.

If your company is responsible for actual physical or reputational damage, be sure you should apologise.

Even in these situations, the best crisis management advice isn’t to simply put out a hand-wringing statement. That crisis PR response isn’t a magic Elastoplast that heals all ills, it’s the first step on the road to rebuilding a reputation.

Changes your culture

Quite simply, if you have something to apologise for, you need to do more than say sorry. You have to demonstrate your sincerity – do something that changes your culture or position or the way you work, do something that means you won’t make the same mistake again.

Making an apology without taking action just means that, inevitably, the same thing will happen again. And again.

Crisis management is more than the moment of crisis, it is the change you effect as a result of the crisis. You have to mitigate the damage caused, pre-empt it happening again, or change how you’ll act in future. Otherwise, your apology is empty and your customers will know that.

If you are making an apology, you have to mean it – and show that it’s having an impact.

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