Take responsibility in public apologies

“I’m sorry you were offended”…”I’m sorry you feel that way.” What’s wrong with these two apologies? They are not real apologies at all, just a slippery way of dodging responsibility for the problem they caused. Instead, the ‘apologies’ should have been along the lines of “I’m sorry my behavior offended you” and “I’m sorry I made you feel that way.” These apologies show you are taking responsibility for the matter. It’s a big difference. The takeaway is that you should be prepared to take responsibility in public apologies when you are clearly in the wrong.

Taking responsibility in an apology should be the approach at an organizational level. Organizations of all sizes have been obliged to go through the ignominious and fraught process of issuing a public apology. Some do it well, some have mixed success and some are terrible.

For instance, Facebook has been exposed in the New York Times (17 September 2021) and the Wall Street Journal in the same week [subscription needed for both] for its “tired old, so-so-sorry, we’ll-do-better excuses that its executives trot out when the company is called out for its destructive products.” These apologies are clearly not genuine, because the company continues not to take any meaningful action on a range of ethical issues.

Another example: in 2018 and 2019  the CEO of Boeing was forced to apologize for two 737 Max jet aircraft crashes that killed 346 passengers and crew. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s initial response was mediocre, and he had to apologize again later before being fired in December 2019.

A failure to understand how apologies work can be costly. In the case of Boeing, the company is facing many lawsuits from family members of passengers who died in the crash, and shareholders as well. Shareholders have reacted to Boeing’s actions by reducing the value of the company’s stock, which lost $13 billion on the first trading day after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Not all of these issues are directly related to Muilenburg’s statement, of course. But it is likely a better apology would have put the company on the path to rebuilding trust.

Crisis communication experts advocate saying sorry to victims of corporate crises and accidents. Despite what many lawyers think, these experts know that saying sorry doesn’t create any legal liability. Corporate spokespersons can express their regrets and show sympathy to the families of the dead and injured without dumping their organization deep into litigation.

They realize that victims are more infuriated by a lack of communication, indifference and lack of sympathy than by a statement of facts, a quick acknowledgment of regret and a statement of intention to prevent the problem from occurring again.

The same thing applies to medical apologies. My article on medical apologies discusses this further.Medical professionals should be prepared to take responsibility in public apologies when they are clearly at fault.

Deciding the need for an apology

In many issue and crisis situations, it is difficult to decide if a corporate apology is needed. Social media especially cause such difficulties because users tend to sensationalize situations and it can be better to refrain from an apology on a marginal issue because the issue may well fade away quickly of its own accord from public consciousness. Therefore, it is vital at the start to determine the facts of the matter. There is no easy answer for reaching these decisions.

When you have determined the facts of the matter, and you believe an apology is required, your overriding strategic need is to decide how best to restore trust. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2019, Sucher & Gupta say the next step is to decide whether the issue is a matter of competence or one of integrity. If you believe your trust problem is integrity-based, and you believe you are wrongly accused of a failure of integrity, you should issue a denial. If you believe your trust problem is competence-based, an apology is needed.

Case study

I was appointed crisis consultant to the Department of Justice in my State in response to a prison riot involving 100-140 prisoners who damaged property and caused 21 prison staff and 2 prisoners to receive hospital treatment. Following the operational review of the crisis, I analyzed the case and wrote a series of recommendations from a communication and stakeholder perspective. The Department followed my recommendations, and when the State government tabled its report in Parliament, the media coverage lasted less than two days. I had recommended in broad terms:

  1. Apology and regret for the riot occurring – the department accepting responsibility for the riot.
  2. Assurance to the government and the public that detailed operational changes had been implemented to prevent such a crisis recurring.
  3. Initiating a stakeholder relations strategy, which had not been in place previously. The main step was to develop a stakeholder relations strategy with all the external groups who had an involvement with the prison in some form. The strategy involved meetings with stakeholders such as representative groups of prisoner supporters and heads of churches in the State to listen to their questions and issues, as well as stakeholder visits to the prison to see the facility for themselves, to meet prisoners on-site to hear their grievances, and to meet with prison staff. Agreement was reached to jointly initiate a commitment to stronger and more active stakeholder relationships.

Develop an effective apology structure so you take responsibility in public apologies

An effective statement meets three criteria:

  1. Tell the truth.
  2. Make your apology about them, not you; include specific details about the people most affected; and apologize as quickly as you can.
  3. Outline future actions to ensure the situation will never happen again, and if applicable, offer reparations to those affected.

James Lukaszewski, self-styled ‘America’s crisis guru,’ recommends the structure below for an apology. It is based on the book, The Five Languages of Apology, by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, which is actually about personal apologies, but Lukaszewski has adapted it for business purposes. These stages show how an organization can genuinely take responsibility in public apologies.

5 stages of a business apology

  1. Regret (acknowledgment) – A verbal acknowledgement by the perpetrator that their wrong behavior caused unnecessary pain, suffering, and hurt that identifies the specific action or behavior responsible for the pain.
  2. Accepting responsibility (declaration) – An unconditional declarative statement by the perpetrator recognizing their bad behavior and acknowledging that there is no excuse for the behavior.
  3. Restitution ( make amends) – The perpetrator’s offer of help or assistance to victims, by action beyond the words “I’m sorry”; and conduct that assumes the responsibility to make the situation right.
  4. Repentance (humility) – The perpetrator acknowledges that this behavior caused pain and suffering for which they are genuinely sorry. The perpetrator language recognizing that serious, unnecessary harm and emotional damage was caused.
  5. Direct forgiveness request – “We were wrong, we hurt you, and we ask you to forgive us.”

20 ways to say you’re sorry – and when it’s helpful

Michael Maslansky, CEO of maslansky + partners, New York, wrote an insightful article for Ragan’s PR Daily newsletter in 2017 (access by subscription). Based on his extensive experience with messaging, the article lists 20 apology types and scenarios where they are appropriate. Maslansky says getting the words right is an essential step that can prevent undue attention in a crisis. Here’s the list:

The big lesson for communicators

A final note: Leaders also should recognize that even a perfect apology is just the first step. The greater the harm, the more difficult it will be to earn back stakeholders’ trust. No matter how eloquent the apology, people will not forgive a company that does not back up its words with concrete action to remedy the harm it has caused — and prevent it from happening in future.

When your organization or client has made a mistake, admit it! The negative consequences are invariably less than the consequences of denial at all costs. Admitting mistakes makes the organization appear more human and empathetic, especially when management says every effort is being made to prevent the same mistake being made in future. The bottom line is that you should take responsibility in public apologies where you are clearly in the wrong.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

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