The Art of the Public Apology
"I'm sorry." A true Canadian's first words.
In fact, Canada has legislation for apologies. The words "I'm sorry" are covered under the Apology Act, which was introduced in 2009 to explain that it is not an admission of guilt.
While apologizing seems second nature for a lot of us, sometimes it doesn't suit the situation. This piece aims to help you understand what makes for an effective apology, because it's deeper than "sorry."
Do I need to apologize?
When we find ourselves in a crisis, the immediate reaction for many is to apologize. However, there is another option available to you: a “non-apology.” This is exactly how it sounds—a crisis response that doesn’t involve the word “sorry.”
The key indicator that will tell you if you should apologize or not is the “attribution of blame.” In other words, who’s at fault? Timothy Coombs, the Beyoncé of crisis communications, created situational crisis communications theory (SCCT) to walk crisis managers through this process. To paraphrase his work, SCCT outlines three crisis clusters:
1. Victim cluster—You’re the victim in this situation; no attribution of blame (e.g., rumours, natural disaster)
2. Accidental Cluster—You’re slightly at fault; low-moderate attribution of blame (e.g., equipment malfunction, human error)
3. Preventable cluster—You’re at fault; high attribution of blame (e.g., company misconduct, lying)
For the victim cluster, an apology is not necessary because it involves something you didn’t do/had no control over. For the preventable cluster, you should apologize. The accidental cluster is a grey area. It is up to you to determine the level of responsibility and take accountability for those actions. If an apology is warranted, it can be appropriate in these instances.
When do I apologize?
Once you’ve decided to apologize, it’s important to recognize that apologies are time sensitive. Sooner is, typically, better than later, because it does two things.
1. Demonstrates that you recognize the wrongdoing.
2. Allows you to get ahead of the messaging and craft the narrative
You may ask yourself, “How do other narratives spread if I haven’t released all the answers?”
Attribution theory helps to answer this question. This explains that if there is a plot hole in a story, our brains tend to subconsciously fill it with the most logical explanation. In short, you want to make sure you get in front of the issue as early as possible, while also having clear, thought-out key messages, answers to questions and a way forward.
Find your balance
To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, every negative action must have an equal and opposite restorative action. Put simply, a sincere apology recognizes and matches or surpasses the level of blame associated with the event.
When crafting your apology, you want to understand how those involved have been impacted by your actions and be honest as to the portion of that harm that is either partially or completely your fault. This is like setting a budget; lying to yourself is only going to hurt you in the long run. Honesty and accuracy are paramount. Use this as a minimum standard to counteract harm.
Depending on the crisis, your apology can include compensation to those affected—monetary donations or resources for reparation efforts—or other means to offset the damage done.
Say what you mean and mean it
Perhaps the most important element of an effective apology is sincerity.
Apologies are an opportunity to demonstrate that you've reflected on the event and, more importantly, recognize the impact. An apology is not a tool to save face, at least sincere apologies aren't.
You want to build trust with an apology. An effective approach to do that is to provide clear, measurable steps to meaningfully address the crisis at hand. An action plan can take shape through training sessions, staff restructuring, updating current protocol mandates and more, depending on the crisis. This allows the audience to hold you accountable and gives you the opportunity to meet expectations and gain credibility back. It is critical to set steps that clearly remedy the crisis and establish timelines that are urgent yet realistic. These benchmarks must be met for trust to be built.
There are other important considerations when crafting any crisis communications strategy, such as crisis history, cultural landscapes and social influences. But the musts for your messaging should be:
1. Acknowledge the crisis
2. Address the situation
3. Pave the way forward
Remember, too, to stay calm and stick to your messaging. A crisis doesn’t have to be an ending; for some it’s a path to a new future. For many organizations who stay genuine about the well-being of their stakeholders, they can look toward a famous quote from Hamlet: “This too shall pass.”