What a preacher can teach brands about apologizing

Crisis comms pros could learn from former Army Chaplain David Peters.

Crisis communications experts could learn a lot from David Peters. He doesn’t guide brands through controversies, but his job as an Episcopal preacher has some similarities.

Like a crisis communications consultant, Peters counsels people going through personal crises for a living. And whether you’re worried about the news cycle or your immortal soul, the principles of an apology are the same: Focus on expressing regret and on taking responsibility before even thinking about reconciliation.

Peters, a former Army Chaplain, deployed to Iraq in 2005 and later authored a book on reconciliation for combat veterans suffering from PTSD. He is now a vicar in a church just north of Austin and the host of the "Dear Padre" podcast. His belief that forgiveness requires knowing how to properly apologize has a wide application for those who help brands though crises of the non-spiritual variety.

Peters says everyone starts in the same place, and it’s not a good one. "We’re all looking for the magic words that get us out of something," he says. "As a kid, that’s the first thing you learn when someone comes after you: How to get out of it. Pretty early on we’re programmed to try to avoid punishment and pain and suffering, and blame."

An apology begins, Peters says, with a fearless inventory not only of what you’ve done but also the damage you’ve caused. "The inventory has to be done with someone else, like a counselor. Find someone you can respect to help you work through what actually happened and why you did it," he says.

Then comes the apology. The first thing that must be communicated is the appropriate and unqualified expression of apology, empathy or regret for the harm done. If someone is expressing sincere remorse, people are more likely to give them a little room when the words aren’t exactly correct.

"The words matter very little. It’s not about the words. The problem is that lawyers are going to write the words to apologize in a way that makes emotional sense but you’re not admitting to anything," he says. All the more reason to have a trusted but effective advisory look over your apology first. "If lawyers are the only people looking at it, they’re always gonna be like, ‘Don’t admit to anything.’ Have somebody who is not a lawyer read the apology."

The problem, Peters says, is that apologies are often "motivated by that fear of consequences." That’s why lawyers frequently drive the process in a way that focuses too much on words, often phrasing things in passive voice that absolves the wrongdoer of any accountability.

"Whatever the sin was, wherever the place of brokenness was, that’s the place the apology should center on," Peters says. "Like, ‘I was proud, I didn’t think the rules applied to me, I thought I could get away with this.’"

Then comes the delivery of the apology, which is where human nature often fouls things up. For example, nerves can make people laugh, and it’s hard to believe someone is sincerely sorry when they’re giggling.

"If you talk about a traumatic event, your voice should match your mood should match your words. Those three things should line up," he says. "That’s what we call ‘authenticity.’"

Everyone makes mistakes, but the right way to apologize is the same regardless of whether you’re just some guy or one of the world’s most famous brands: Figure out exactly what you did wrong, why you did it, and the harm it caused; be accountable for the damage; sound like you mean it.

Restitution and penance come later, followed perhaps by forgiveness, but a good apology is the first step.

Jason Stanford is SVP for global communications at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

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