It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry – the art of the public apology

Apologising is difficult. Whether it’s to your partner, a friend or a member of your family, swallowing your pride and admitting you were wrong can be daunting – especially as you risk having your apology rejected.

Spare a thought then for the spokesperson or head of a company who has to make his or her apology publically.

They run the risk being rejected, not just by one person, but by a global audience.

There are countless stories of corporate executives mangling the public apology. Probably the most famous is Tony Hayward – then CEO of BP – telling the world that he just wanted his life back in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill.

Hayward would go on to lose his job but he is not the only executive who has been felled by the public apology.

Many politicians, actors and celebrities have also had to apologise publically for their indiscretions.

Just last month DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard had to “apologise unreservedly” for reposting a Facebook posted which yearned for the “good old days of apartheid.”

Kohler Barnard was raked over the coals for that post and then for the apology – which many felt was insincere.

Newspaper columnist Paul Slansky summed up just how difficult making a mistake in public can be when he said: “To err is human, to err in public, humiliating.”

In the social media age Slansky’s statement is truer than ever.  Corporates and public figures who err in public are doomed to a social media pasting on par with a medieval public flogging.

The internet, by giving every critic a voice and a platform, has added an extra dimension to managing the public apology for corporates.

A properly crafted and measured public apology is now an indispensable tool when it comes to reputation management.

But what makes a good public apology?

In my opinion there are six things that need be part of the makeup of an apology for it to be effective.

  1. Your apology has to be authentic and sincere or simply put; you have to mean it. People today are skeptical and they will see through a fake apology very quickly.
  2. Your apology must use the appropriate language. Measure your use of emotive words and descriptions and steer clear of the kind of language which can alienate the public even further.
  3. Consider apologising on the appropriate platform. If the original indiscretion took place on Twitter, apologise on Twitter. This rule is not hard and fast and you will need to make a decision based on the crisis level.
  4. Make sure your client is doing something which shows customers that they mean the apology. Have they set up a hotline? Have they rectified the problem or fired the person responsible?
  5. Don’t make the apology about yourself, make it about the people who were affected. This is really the biggest thing Hayward did wrong when he tried to apologise.
  6. Don’t wait too long to apologise. Once a corporation knows they are culpable delaying the inevitable will just make things worse.

These basic tips will help you construct an effective corporate apology. In part 2 of this post I will explore the type of language you should use when crafting an apology.

Written By Francois Rank