PR Disasters: 3rd Lesson — Apologize Carefully, Thoroughly (10/10/13)

Determining how, when and even if to apologize is both an art and a science. When something has gone wrong, a carefully timed and crafted apology that reflects genuine remorse, regret and empathy can quickly make things right. 

Conversely, sometimes an apology stirs up dust and can create more reputational damage than had no apology been made in the first place.

  • Beware of the non-apology. Non-apologies such as “We are sorry if anyone was offended,” can do more reputational harm than the original problem caused. Passive apologies are also dangerous: “Mistakes were made,” suggests a lack of accountability and that there is still no one accepting responsibility. 
  • Offer a full, unequivocal apology when appropriate. Many times, concerns about harm to a reputation may take priority over concerns about liability. It’s more advantageous to sincerely apologize and attempt to move forward in restoring trust in your organization than to remain silent.

Losing in the court of public opinion can prove more damaging long-term than losing in a court of law—lost sales, customers and confidence in a business can be much more costly than an unfavorable judgment and possible treble damages for an unrepentant defendant.

  • Consider whether an apology is even necessary.  Sometimes an organization can bring more attention to a matter that really required no apology in the first place, or the apology can incite an even more negative reaction than had no apology been offered.

For example, when Netflix apologized for a rate increase (including a recording via YouTube), it missed the concerns of the customer, and the apology itself ultimately became fodder for late night television.

Here’s how to determine whether an apology is needed:

  1. Did the organization do or say something that hurt others?
  2. Would the organization undo what occurred if it could?

And apology may be appropriate and needed if the answer to both questions is “yes.”

In Netflix’s case, they had no plans to reverse their decision to raise rates, but for some reason they felt like they needed to explain and apologize for it.

When your organization has a matter that may require an apology, consider carefully the content, timing and objectives to be achieved by issuing an apology. If the issue involves a legal matter or liability exposure, it’s important to also consult with an attorney to make sure any apology  is consistent with and supports the legal strategy.