Sometimes as communicators, you may put out a statement that misses the mark. Or maybe your executives never asked communications for help and they got it wrong. Now it’s your mess to clean up.
This challenge has been a recurring one for many communicators in recent weeks as organizations scrambled to respond to the war between Israel and Hamas.
For instance, PRSA-NY issued an initial statement on the violence, followed by an apology, then a clarification. Now-former Web Conference CEO Paddy Cosgrave apologized after his controversial comments on the war — but later resigned anyway as major sponsors pulled out of the conference over his initial remarks.
Apologies are a delicate art. Admitting when you’re wrong might help fix strained relationships — but can also extend the life cycle of a story and keep reminding people of your first misstep. And if not handled with care, they can end up making things much, much worse.
We spoke to Eliot Hoff, global crisis practice lead for APCO Worldwide, about when and how to say you’re sorry.
The risks of apologizing
As to the apologies surrounding initial statements about the Israel-Hamas was, Hoff doesn’t think most of these have been successful in repairing the narrative. For one thing, your first statement is likely to be your stickiest. Any attempt at apology after may only remind audiences of their anger, and even the apology may strike the wrong chord.
Hoff pointed to the conversations happening on college campuses, where some institutions either delayed making initial statements or made statements some constituents didn’t feel were strong enough or specific enough to satisfy.
“What was said first has created the entire tone of the response and while anything said after could make a positive difference in certain instances, but it brings up what was said first,” Hoff said.
This doubling effect underscores the importance of getting statements right the first time. Whether the statement is from the company as a whole or a leader specifically, communications must have a seat at the table. Communicators can see the blind spots, identify the areas most likely to cause backlash or even advise against a statement altogether.
But none of that can happen if the communicator isn’t in the room when the statement is being drafted.
Additionally, the timing for apologies is critical. Some are simply too little, too late. People are likely to evaluate an apology in the context of a situation’s present moment, not the moment when the initial statement was made.
For instance, some organizations found themselves apologizing for statements they made in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel that instigated the conflict. But by the time the apology was made, the situation had significantly evolved and escalated into full-blown war. So those audiences are reliving the initial statement through the lens of the present moment rather than in the time it was made.
“They’re thinking in the context of the situation now, and they’re creating their own understanding of what that apology really means and what you really stand for,” Hoff said.
Silence is a statement
Despite these risks, there are times when apologizing is appropriate. Hoff cited examples such as a faulty product or a factually incorrect statement.
“That shows they care about their stakeholders,” Hoff said. “They are taking responsibility. They know what’s important, they’re going to fix it. That’s an apology that could be very effective.”.
But in the context of geopolitical commentary, things get much murkier. Some organizations may think that not making a statement at all will save them from backlash — but that’s just no longer true.
“Silence is a statement,” Hoff said simply. “(Organizations) have to be very careful about deciding to make a statement now, even if they feel it’s a balanced statement because the emotions and opinions here are raw.”