4 conditions for an effective apology

If an executive in your organization feels compelled to apologize for wrongdoing, it should be because there’s a need, not simply because video apologies are trendy.

On Valentine’s Day 2007, an ice storm and some bad decisions left JetBlue passengers stranded in planes that were frozen to the tarmac. Then-CEO Dave Neeleman took to YouTube to offer an unscripted, heartfelt apology, along with an outline of actions he would take to ensure the situation would never be repeated. The coverage of the apology by both the press and social media kicked off the trend of the video apology. Some commentators predicted apologies would become so commonplace that they would lose all meaning. There have been terrible examples of apologies from business leaders, offered in videos, tweets, and blog posts. That same year, Mattel’s CEO, Bob Eckert, embraced video to apologize for millions of lead-tainted toys manufactured in China. Consumerist called it “the best corporate apology video we’ve ever seen,” but an experiment in which viewers recorded their views of Eckert’s believability demonstrated that the apology was only moderately effective. Since then, countless other apologies have landed with thuds as leaders read from scripts while looking as though they’d rather be anywhere else than in front of the camera. Some leaders—Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel comes to mind—won’t even go so far as to say they’re sorry when a crisis creates a perceived risk for its customers.

Because tone-deaf apologies have become common, it might be easy to dismiss Spiegel’s non-apology, given that an “I’m sorry” no longer means all that much anyway. An apology can still send a powerful message and produce hugely beneficial outcomes, given four conditions:

• The organization and its leaders truly have something to apologize for. • The senior-most leader genuinely and sincerely is sorry. • He or she apologizes from the heart, not from a script. • The apology is conveyed through more than one channel.

For proof that apologies can be the right business move, look to MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, whose recent apology for inappropriate remarks about former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s family has produced at least as much attention as the original transgression—if not more. On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Romney to address the controversy. Romney’s answer: “I recognize that people make mistakes, and the folks at MSNBC made a big mistake. They’ve apologized for it. That’s all can you ask for. I am going to move on from that. I am sure they want to move on from it. Look, I’ve made plenty of mistakes myself. They’ve apologized for this. You know, I think we can go on from there.” When Wallace pressed Romney, he added, “I think it’s a heartfelt apology. I think for that reason, we hold no ill will whatsoever.” Harris-Perry’s apology took the form of multiple tweets, an on-air, no-holds-barred segment at the top of her show in which she took responsibility and acknowledged the wrongness of the offending segment, and a post on the MSNBC site that included a statement, the tweets, and the video. As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen pointed out in a tweet:

Because the issue is not only political but at the heart of a deep political divide in the United States, Harris-Perry’s apology won’t satisfy everybody. But this isn’t a post about politics; it’s about apologies and the lesson Rosen highlighted: If you have to apologize, and you mean it, go big. That’s the teachable moment for business leaders and crisis managers. Here’s the video of Harris-Perry’s apology: Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self. (Image via)


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