Failing to apologise? That’s criminal

Given there’s been plenty to be sorry about in 2020, it’s no surprise there’s been plenty of apologies flying around.

Say sorry quickly and make sure you at least sound as if you mean it, advises Steve Double
Say sorry quickly and make sure you at least sound as if you mean it, advises Steve Double

But who knew that not getting your apology right, or timely, could end in a criminal conviction?

That’s what happened to University Hospitals Plymouth NHS trust which dragged its feet over apologising properly to the family of a 91-year-old woman who died in its care.

Health and social care providers now fall under the duty of candour regulations of the Care Quality Commission, granted new powers of criminal prosecution.

This year, the first case under the new powers came to court – and the trust was heavily fined over the death.

The judge said the case was a good example of why these regulatory offences had become very important.

“Not only have [the family] had to come to terms with their tragic death, but their loss has been compounded by the trust’s lack of candour,” he said.

Another factor was timing – the trust’s apology came too late. A swift and genuine apology can be an instant panacea, so – once the facts are established – the sooner the better.

It’s not hard to see duty of candour regulations spreading to other regulated industries, maybe sooner than we think.

Perhaps sensing the mood, the Conservative MP John Howell recenty introduced a Private Member’s Bill to ensure apologies are not admissions of liability.

This is a key issue for PR advisors for whom issuing a well-crafted apology is simply the right thing to do, while legal departments or external lawyers advise against it for fear of the impact on civil, possibly even criminal, cases.

If the bill ends such arm-wrestling (often PR advisors come off second best), it bodes well for 2021.

Howell hopes his bill, which has a second reading in March, will usher in a new era of civility. Perhaps he had parliamentary colleagues in mind.


Now read: Honest, grudging, or non-existent: The PR apologies of 2020


Some have mastered the ‘non-apology’. I use the term 'mastered' loosely, as often the so-called apology backfires.

Priti Patel’s ‘I’m sorry if people feel like that’ non-apology has made several appearances.

In April, she provoked a social media backlash over fears doctors were dying during the pandemic because of PPE shortages, saying: “I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings.”

And not everyone agreed her unreserved, fulsome apology after the Home Office bullying inquiry was indeed that. She apologised for the “upset” her behaviour caused, but not the behaviour itself.

Jeremy Corbyn’s begrudging apology in response to the findings of the EHRC antisemitism investigation of the Labour party also caused widespread outrage.

Neither of these apologies appeared heartfelt or unconditional.

Both statements would have surely gone through the filter of advisors, but without the principal’s genuine contrition, there’s only so much their aides could have done.

The starting point for an apology is to place yourself in the shoes of your subject. In tragic circumstances, this may be a grieving family. In the corporate world, it may be infuriated customers.

In either instance, a grudging apology can be as damaging as no apology at all – who would have thought it might take law to make that point?

Steve Double is a strategic partner at Alder

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