“I’m Sorry,” and Other Ways to Manage a Crisis

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a number of public acts of contrition, or a lack of, as means to mitigate a crisis or controversy. There was the NFL apologizing for performances of the replacement referees as well as apologies or refusal to apologize for misstatements made by both presidential candidates. And while “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” in a time of crisis, the decision whether to make a public apology or not does have an important impact on public opinion and the outcome of the crisis itself.

In the ordinary course of human events, people tend to apologize to one another quite often – usually done very seriously and in earnest. This is not simply because the human condition comes with large quantities of guilt and regret – as someone who grew up in an all-Italian family can tell you – it stems more from our natural desire to build and maintain relationships. So when a problem arises in a relationship, we cannot achieve closure and move on without some form of apology. Absent the simple act of apologizing, the issue at hand is never truly resolved and going forward problems big and small multiply until one day a great fire ignites.

The same is true in public communications. When controversies arise, goodwill can often be reestablished with the simple act of apologizing. Of course, like any communications, this must be well thought through and carefully constructed. As anyone can tell you, a poor apology or one that is not perceived as sincere is worse than no apology at all and will result in long-term reputational damage.

The first question that typically arises in crisis management is when to apologize. The answer:  as soon as you know you have a problem. Waiting for the story to play out on its own or hoping the issue will blow over will only compound the problem and posture future communications as defensive and less credible.

Issuing an apology is never easy. There are many considerations to evaluate, including potential legal exposures and liabilities. But if the decision is to make a public apology, it’s important to do it right. To be effective, there are several principles to consider:

Tell the whole story. In communications, if you don’t tell your story someone is sure to tell it for you, and probably poorly. Even before an apology is issued, it is important to get all of the facts and information out on the table. A crisis is often perpetuated by allowing the details to dribble out a little at a time. It is far better to put out all of the information and the facts up front and in your own words.

Before you show what you know, show that you care. In order to maintain or build bridges of trust and understanding, you need to have a thoughtful and complete explanation of the facts and the events that led up to the crisis. But before you can even get there, you need to demonstrate empathy for all concerned. Without showing that you care, most audiences will not listen to or accept the explanation.

Be genuine. Anyone can tell the difference between a sincere apology and a deflection of blame or an abdication of responsibility. So if an apology is appropriate, make it real.

Have a plan and share it. No one can simply say, “I’m sorry,” and then walk away. Completing the repair work that may need to be done to a reputation or brand requires an acknowledgement that things will be done differently in the future and a clear plan for how those changes would be implemented.

Get feedback. Was the explanation understood? Was the apology accepted? Is the plan for remediation credible? What else can be done? These are important questions that can be answered with the aid research and feedback from your audiences. With proper feedback, you can then effectively plan for the future.

Most any crisis, whether related to a person, product or brand, can be effectively managed through communication that is open, honest and backed by acts of genuine commitment. As human beings, we innately understand that an apology is a natural way to untangle ourselves from past actions and establish a clear path to the future. Apologizing doesn’t erase past events nor does it make us perfect, but it does demonstrate our acknowledgement of a problem and our commitment to do better.