How brands should apologize: Be quick, honest, and sincere

Whether a social media faux pas or a much bigger crisis, brands shouldn't be afraid to apologize. But how they do so is just as important.

Image via Volkswagen / YouTube

Data breaches, social media blunders, recalls – or an automotive giant installing software in its cars to mislead regulators. Nearly every week, a company seems to issue an apology for an incident. Yet in the always-on social media age, PR pros agree that saying "sorry" could keep a brand’s reputation intact.

Earlier this week, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn said he was resigning amid the company’s crisis over avoiding US emissions regulations. Winterkorn apologized last Sunday for the automaker’s use of technology in its diesel cars that enabled them to avoid compliance with US emissions regulations. A day later, Volkswagen Americas CEO Michael Horn apologized again at a launch event in New York, saying, "We screwed up."

Yet despite Winterkorn’s regretful statements, the reputational damage had already occurred, especially after the initial number of diesel cars that included equipment designed to mislead emissions testers and needed to be recalled went from 500,000 in the US to 11 million worldwide.

While it may be tempting to deny or ignore a situation, corporate executives should react sincerely and authentically, which is why having an issues management and crisis communications plan in place is critical, says ConAgra Foods CCO Jon Harris.

He adds that companies must act quickly when apologizing so they can take control of the situation.

"An apology immediately shows that you’ve acknowledged that something wrong has occurred," notes Harris. "Some people think that apologizing is equivalent to accepting liability, but it is possible to be regretful for an incident even if something is not your fault."

When a major crisis happens, saying sorry sometimes is not enough, so a corporate leader should show stakeholders, the media, and consumers that he understands why a situation happened and how it will be fixed, he adds.

Conroy Boxhill, SVP of corporate and crisis communications at Edelman, says it is vital for a company to take responsibility when a crisis arises as a direct result of a brand "failing to deliver on the commitment they made to the public."

However, he says the first step in such a crisis situation is for a company to know its audience. 

"My counsel to clients is to understand what your stakeholders expect from you before you make a decision about what your action needs to be," explains Boxhill. "If they don’t expect an apology, then don’t apologize."

If a company decides to move forward with a mea culpa, Boxhill says it should have general counsel at the table with communications in order to have a balance between litigation and reputation, which are two vulnerable areas. 

At The Home Depot, communications executives work in partnership with the legal team when a crisis comes up, notes Stacey Tank, the company’s VP of corporate communications and external affairs.

"The way I’ve always approached it is to ask for the advice of the legal team, and then try to balance that with being human and going back to the fundamentals of when you make a mistake, name it, and make it right," she says.

Last September, The Home Depot proactively communicated with customers about its investigation into a credit- and debit-card data breach of its national network of stores.

Tank says the company "felt terrible" about the impact of the breach on its customers and the inconvenience it caused them, so it acted quickly to assure consumers they were not responsible for any fraudulent charges resulting from the data breach.

The Home Depot made personnel available to talk to consumers about the situation on the phone or via email, in addition to posting information on its website and social channels, Tank adds.

She explains that while the value of doing the right thing is the same as it was in the past, what has changed is the pace of dialogue on social media and how easy it is for people to get information, ask questions, or demand answers.

Companies are apologizing more often and more quickly because of social media’s 24-7, real-time disposition, adds Boxhill.

"With social media, your reputation can be completely eradicated in 48 hours, so you just don’t have the luxury of time that you once did to methodically put together a step-by-step process," he notes.

John Hellerman, cofounder of Hellerman Baretz Communications, says another reason to apologize is to give the brand a human face, which is why using imagery and video on social and digital channels can be powerful.

He adds that if a brand decides to post a video online to make an apology, it must carefully choose the right person to deliver the message in the same way it selects a company spokesperson.

Winterkorn issued a video statement on Tuesday, and by Thursday afternoon, it only garnered 27,000 views on YouTube, for instance.

When Graco recalled millions of car seats last year, the brand reached out to moms, who are some of "the most passionate groups on social media," recalls Boxhill, who helped to manage the crisis.

"There was contact from the brand that was visible; it was not a corporate-speak response," says Boxhill, "We communicated that we appreciate the concern and we recognized what they wanted most, which was information."

On Twitter, some consumers may look down at a corporation for using the platform to talk about serious or tragic issues, such as a loss of life. Yet Hellerman contends it’s an effective and acceptable way to communicate.

"The media is following it, and it’s very easy to get instantaneous commentary on live events and get the word out very quickly," he says.

Harris notes that a company should also respond to a situation in the venue where it occurred. So if a crisis began on Twitter, the brand should update its followers with a tweet.

Regardless of how a brand chooses to apologize, he adds that owning up to a mistake is key because transparency is more important today than ever, especially due to social media and the emphasis on CSR and sustainability.

Harris adds that consumers will be more likely to forgive a company if it speaks out, rather than remaining silent.

"It’s really important that we as leaders make sure that our corporations are doing the right thing, and taking everyone on the journey, whether it be the media, employees, customers, analysts, or shareholders," he says.

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