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Sorry is hardest word in crisis communications

France24 screen grab - say sorry in crisis communications

For too many companies sorry is  the hardest word when facing a crisis. Too many have the mistaken fear that apologising means accepting all liability. It doesn’t. Even when they do apologise it’s too often a fake apology with too many caveats.

I’ve just done a France24 interview on its business show, People and Profit with Stephen Carroll, about the art of the apology.

 How to say sorry. What is a good apology?

A good apology has nine key elements:

  1. Genuine – it has to be heartfelt and not grudging.
  2. Acknowledge fault – you’re apologising for something so there is fault. Acknowledge what it is.
  3. Admit responsibility – it doesn’t mean admit all responsibility, but if there are some things where it’s clear you’re responsible then say so for those things.
  4. Express regret – genuine regret.
  5. From the top – the genuine apology must come from the top to prove you really mean it.
  6. Heart, not script – a genuine apology doesn’t need a script as it comes from the heart and the head.
  7. Fast – don’t let a narrative develop that shows you don’t care or when you finally apologise it will just look like you’re only doing it because you’ve been forced into it.
  8. Offer of repair – say what you’re going to do to fix it and stop it happening again.
  9. Multiple channels – it’s no good if people don’t know you’ve apologised. Use video, interviews, news conference, news release, blog post, podcast, social media graphics etc. Make sure it is the same consistent message on every channel.

Facebook initially failed on many of these elements.

One point I make to Stephen Carroll is how long it took Mark Zuckerberg to apologise. The Cambridge Analytica story appeared in the New York Times/Guardian on 17 March, but Zuckerberg didn’t publish his statement on his own Facebook account until 21 March. He didn’t apologise in the statement. Despite saying “But we also made mistakes…” he doesn’t apologise.  The statement is long, heavy on detail and weak on emotion.

Towards the end of his long statement he says “I started Facebook, and at the end of the day I’m responsible for what happens on our platform.” But he doesn’t say sorry.

Despite Facebook extolling the virtues of video it doesn’t use it to let Zuckerberg actually talk and show he means what he says.

In a TV interview with CNN on the same day he starts to apologise, but it’s a classic fake apology. “I’m sorry this happened”. Not sorry he and Facebook had done it. But sorry it had happened.

In his evidence to US senators on 10 April Zuckerberg finally gives an unequivocal apology.

“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are just the latest famous names and big companies to be caught out by their inability to understand the art of the apology.

Facebook has the resources to manage a corporate crisis and will have had well-rehearsed plans in place. This isn’t the case for many companies. Too many think nothing will happen to us. This is particularly true of many social media and digital companies as their public relations frequently focuses on marketing and user or customer acquisition rather than reputation, creating a significant risk to their future.

If you want a chat about what you can do to prepare for a crisis and protect reputation then please get in touch for an informal conversation about the training courses, crisis simulations and consultancy services I can provide to help you.

Stuart Bruce

International Public Relations Adviser | Trainer | Author | Media Commentator | Conference Speaker | University Lecturer | Online PR | Digital Corporate Communications | Crisis Communications | Digital Public Affairs

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