How to Create Effective Public Apologies: A Lesson in Crisis Communications

“I’m sorry.”

Why are these two simple words sometimes so hard for corporations to utter when they’ve made a mistake?

Often times it’s because of the illogical thinking that accompanies it: most top executives are loathe to admit they’ve made a mistake (or that their company failed its customers in some manner) because they view it as a sign of weakness. This couldn’t be farther from the truth: owning up to and apologizing for a mistake takes courage and is a true sign of leadership.

What makes up an effective public apology, anyway?  It’s showing true remorse and a genuine willingness to help those affected most. Take an Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, for example. Although many of the facts surrounding the cause were unknown at the time, Amtrak’s CEO was front and center with media, local officials and the NTSB apologizing for the accident, expressing deep sympathy and condolences to those families who lost loved ones, and vowing to review the causes to help prevent a similar disaster from occurring in the future. While the situation was a dark chapter in the history of the company, the CEO did the right thing by taking full responsibility and quickly apologizing for the incident.

When done properly, public apologies can actually lead to greater customer retention and brand loyalty and have a positive impact on the overall financial health of a brand.

Here are four tips to keep in mind for your clients for the next time they face a situation where a public apology is called for:

  • Show true remorse towards those affected most. Be human; express sympathy with those most affected and show them your genuine care and concern. Put yourself in their shoes; how would it make you feel if you were the one affected?
  • Do it immediately. If you think an apology may be in order from your client because of a transgression or other misstep, act swiftly and don’t delay. Case in point: when there was a swirl of negative press and consumer concerns over faulty automobile Takada airbags, the ill-advised CEO waited far too long before finally apologizing, and even when he did so, he failed to address whether the company would offer to compensate victims.
  • Shoulder the blame and take responsibility and accountability. The current water crisis in Flint, MI is another example where fingers were pointed and no one took ownership of the crisis. The governor of Flint not only failed to apologize in a timely manner to his own citizens, he failed to acknowledge there was a major health catastrophe until it was far too late.
  • Provide specifics on how you will remedy the situation and create a timeline of when you plan to communicate again. A good example of this is when Apple Maps was widely panned for how poorly it worked when it debuted, CEO Tim Cook wrote an open apology to consumers on the Apple Web site, outlining exactly what was wrong and expressing empathy for the frustration that consumers were feeling.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you’re faced with a situation that calls for a public apology from your client. You won’t be sorry.

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