PR professionals are well acquainted with the necessity of the corporate apology. It’s usually the first thing we insist upon after a client’s public and embarrassing gaffe.
Back in the day, apologizing was something CEOs and other public figures were often loath to do. It suggested weakness and served as an admission of guilt. The prevalent thinking was, “What the public doesn’t know won’t hurt them.”
Social media was a game changer in all of that. Anybody—expert or not—can now voice an opinion on any social platform of their choosing. The collective impact can be devastating to a personal or organizational reputation.
To that end, the public is now regularly subjected to the grand mea culpa, often staged in the form of press conferences and accompanied by heartfelt phrases of apology. There are even sometimes a few tears for good measure. Witness NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s widely covered apology over Donald Sterling’s racist remarks or even Canadian politician Paul Calandra’s tearful response when accused of evading a reporter’s question.
Sometimes, a quick tweet of retraction is employed, fueling public response and continued backlash that will hopefully burn out after 48 hours. Such was the case when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s asserted that “karma will compensate women with better salaries” and quickly issued an apology.
With the elevated frequency of public apologies, is the public even buying into this “I’m sorry” strategy anymore?
“Audiences are onto the mea culpa tour and the non-apology/apology,” says PR and marketing strategist Karen Swim. “But a sincere apology will stand the test of time. Our mothers knew the difference between genuine remorse and ‘I’m sorry I got caught,’ and so do our audiences. If you’re going to say it, mean it, and if you really mean it, back it with tangible actions.”
Julia Joy of Z Group PR agrees. “An apology must be followed up with a plan of action to provide restitution. Is it a change in company culture? Is it a solid program or an internal audit? This is what consumers are looking for. They want the whole package.”
What about the media’s perspective? They are often charged with covering such apologies when it propels an ongoing story. According to Lauren Strapagiel, news editor at Canada.com, the key is to not to apologize for having offended someone, but apologize for having been offensive.
“We’re perfectly aware when an apology is a hollow, hasty attempt to save face,” she says. “The story will reflect that because we can go to a source and ask what they think of an unimpressive apology.”
Some apologies do go off the rails, and there can be many factors that play into why: The person charged with delivering the message may not be comfortable with public speaking, have yet to experience what it’s like to be in the eye of a crisis, or have language or cultural differences wit the audience.
Is there any other way to publicly express regret? There are many audiences to consider, both external and internal, who may need to hear “I’m sorry” before being able to move on.
“In this day and age, a genuine corporate apology is still a necessity,” says Barbara Laidlaw, executive vice president and group head of crisis and issues management at Edelman in New York. “The relationship between a corporate entity and its consumers, employees, and stakeholders can be damaged by unforeseen events. A genuine apology, including acceptance and acknowledgement of wrongdoing if appropriate, is still part of the healing and/or rebuilding process.”
“While it may be altruistic, I’d like to believe the less-than-genuine apologies are the exception, rather than the norm,” Laidlaw says.
Swim says she offers her clients this advice: “I counsel clients to not do stupid things. But, if they do, or if something is misinterpreted, own up to it and fix it.”