Effective Public Apologies: Part 2

public apologies

“We apologize to our customers who have been affected by this and have taken immediate steps to help prevent this from happening again.”

Well, that wasn’t too hard to say, was it?

A few months back I wrote a blog post about the basic tenets of issuing a public apology, and the pitfalls that companies often succumb to when making an attempt to mitigate a crisis or issue facing their brand. While we continue to see mistakes being made – you may have read a story or two about United Airlines – I’m pleased to report that there is in fact hope. A client (who we’ll refer to as Company X) recently faced with such a crisis followed some of those basic principles I outlined in my post, and as such we were collectively able to extinguish what could have otherwise become a full-fledged crisis impacting shareholder value. 

In a nutshell: a blogger alerted Company X that some of its customers’ data had inadvertently been exposed for a brief period of time. The blogger asked Company X for commentary on how it planned to address the issue, what caused it, who was impacted and how it planned to remedy the situation. The blogger indicated he was planning to publish a story about the issue and asked if we wished to contribute commentary to his piece. Of note, in previous posts he published, the majority of the companies he blogged about with similar issues declined to comment altogether, electing to stay silent instead.

Following is a brief synopsis of the actions we took (mapped back to the steps I outlined in my original post), and how good old fashioned contriteness and responsiveness helped mitigate the situation.

  • Showing true remorse towards those affected most. In responding to the blogger (and ultimately as part of a blog post Company X published on its site addressing the issue), the company expressed genuine remorse and empathy to its customers that could have been affected by the situation, showing that it understood the potential impact at stake. 
  •  Do it immediately. Company X, after consulting with its senior data security expert, responded immediately to the blogger (within one hour of the initial request), addressing/answering his questions right away. Given this effort, the blogger came back and actually thanked Company X, citing just how responsive they had been. Furthermore, because we displayed such a willingness to participate in his story, the blogger allowed Company X to review his story before posting based on our cooperation thus far. This gave us the chance to then gently push back on some of the allegations that weren’t necessarily true and could have otherwise made the story much more inflammatory.
  • Shoulder the blame and take responsibility. As part of the response to the blogger, Company X took full responsibility for the situation without pointing any fingers. The client acknowledged there was a mistake and pinpointed where the issue arose from very clearly.
  • Provide specifics on how you will remedy the situation. As part of the response to the blogger as well as a blog post it penned addressing the issue, Company X detailed the steps it was taking to help prevent a similar situation from happening again, including having an independent auditor review its procedures and make objective recommendations.

As a result of following these relatively straightforward steps, although the blogger posted his story on Company X, it was very fair and balanced, and included many of our own message points about steps being taken to mitigate the situation. The post fortunately had very limited traction in traditional and social media, and the issue has since died down. While crisis are rarely ever smooth for even the most seasoned PR practitioners, taking proactive steps to control the narrative from the start can only help. 

Alan Marcus
Vice President

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Posted on May 24, 2017 in Crisis Communications

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  • Grey Wolf

    This is a great article, and contains excellent advice from an experienced practitioner. I agree with all points, but want to add a crucial one from my own experience, which is to ALWAYS and carefully consult with legal on ANY public apology message. The reason large and smart companies do not apologize right away after an incident is that their lawyers are likely muzzling them to prevent what may become discoverable information at trial or a government agency investigation from becoming public prematurely and thereby risk interfering with defence testimony. This is a necessary tactic, of course, but legal and communications need to come together quickly, and with the common goal of protecting the reputation of the company, to agree on what language to use in messaging to show sincere compassion and to assume the appropriate level of responsibility — and then stick to it — always being mindful that litigation and regulatory investigations could be down the road in short order.

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