Peter Duda, EVP and head of the corporate issues group at Weber Shandwick
Fifteen years' experience in PR, mainly on crisis comms
Your parents taught you that when you do something wrong, you should apologize. The same holds true for corporations.
In a crisis situation, companies should try to act like human beings, especially when it comes down to addressing the human needs of their stakeholders. Crises evoke extreme emotions from stakeholders. As such, addressing their fear, outrage, and concern is fundamental. Keep in mind that over the long term, the fact the crisis occurred is far less damaging to a company's reputation, brand equity, or shareholder value than the perception of how your company responded to the situation. Often, a simple "we're sorry" goes a long way.
While a sincere apology is a necessary first step, apologizing after a crisis isn't a substitute for action. Fixing the problem is a must for any organization, as is making a credible commitment that it will do everything possible to ensure it does not repeat the issue.
Too often, corporate apologies avoid any acknowledgment of responsibility or remorse and sound as if the company is only sorry that people are angry with them. And saying you're sorry simply isn't enough. Deeds, as well as words, are required. If stakeholders don't see action to fix the problems now and prevent them in the future, people will see it as a PR ploy, which will ultimately backfire.
To be effective, and ultimately beneficial, an apology must be done thoughtfully and well. Given the litigious world we live in, the stakes are high. As every corporate legal counsel will tell you, everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. At the same time, a growing body of research indicates that apologies and atonement can reduce monetary exposure in litigation, while perceived denial or recalcitrance only makes the plaintiff's bar richer. So the decision to apologize in a crisis requires a balance between liability concerns and overall business interests.
Apologizing isn't an easy choice, nor should it be done without consideration of all the consequences. More often than not, however, it is the right and smart thing to do.
Gil Schwartz, EVP and CCO, CBS Corp.
Oversees a communications group responsible for CBS' media relations, PR, internal, and corporate comms
We live in a nauseatingly apologetic time. You can hardly avoid the thundering hooves of those stampeding to express their remorse for one miscreancy or another. Every week, a veritable orgy of apologia now issues forth from political candidates, those covering them, a few randy or psychotic celebrities, and even a few shamed business entities. Everybody is sorry for something. It's kind of disheartening. Doesn't anybody defend themselves anymore?
Somebody is getting bad PR advice.
"Get in front of it," says the wise PR counsel. "We'll say we are sorry and move on." Perhaps this was good advice in another day, one less dedicated to dragging each available Orpheus down to hell. In this media age, however, the admission of culpability and regret, no matter how sincere, won't be accepted. It ends nothing. The apology is simply the mandatory curtsy the media requires so it can begin an ugly dance that very often ends in the embarrassment, torture, and eventual public execution of the apologizer. Anyone who tries to thwart that ritual is deeply resented. Hence the anger at anybody who refuses to begin the beguine. "Why don't you apologize?" the Furies shout, circling the issue in frustration, hungry to get started.
For in a 24/7 news cycle, the apology kick-starts a chain of investigation and fabrication that is never satisfied until the next apologizer appears. You're sorry? Really? How sorry? Why didn't you say so earlier? Have you apologized to the victims/public/your wife/husband? When? What did they say? Have people been fired? Are you investigating? Why not? When will the report be out? Will people be fired then? What is your policy on such matters? What do you mean it's proprietary? And why hasn't anybody been fired? Huh? Well?
So if you just ran over a puppy, you can immediately say you're sorry once and once only and move on. Otherwise, it might be best to cancel your penitent press conference until the quality of mercy becomes a little less strained around here. Try doing something good instead. Somebody may even want to report on that for a change.
Corporations should certainly apologize after a crisis. However, the actions the company takes after an apology are just as important as the mea culpa itself. Saying sorry for the sake of it just doesn't cut the mustard.