News Analysis: The PR benefit of a public apology

As corporations in crisis and gaffe-prone public figures often prove, ‘sorry’ is indeed the hardest word to say. Mark Johnson reports on why recanting in public is rare and asks how the desired outcome can best be won

Boris Johnson had an other-worldly look in his eyes as he milled among the people of Liverpool on his apologetic excursion two weeks ago. Difficult though it must have been, at least The Spectator editor and Conservative MP for Henley made his apologies in no uncertain terms for what his magazine had written about Liverpudlians.

The headline writers and columnists were not so sure the Prime Minister had been so straightforward at September’s Labour Party Conference when he minced his apology over the quality of pre-war intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons capability. Coverage afterwards was devoted to asking whether Tony Blair had truly said sorry.

And despite the fact that many public figures and CEOs find it so difficult to say sorry, American business leaders believe a CEO apology is the most important first step to corporate recovery from crisis.

Public apologies

A recent CEO reputation study by Burson-Marsteller gathered the views of 150 top executives at Fortune 1000 companies (PRWeek, 29 October). Sixty-eight per cent felt the CEO was responsible for handling the recovery of a corporate reputation, while 32 per cent felt the buck stopped with the board of directors. The majority also felt that a sincere, public apology was essential to recovery.

Yet the public apology from corporations and public figures remains a rare event. ‘The media don’t help much by hammering U-turns and failures whenever people change their mind because the facts have changed,’ says The Guardian political editor Michael White. ‘Of course, the media never apologise, except when there is a lawyer’s pistol at their head. But Blair has real problems, far wider than Iraq, in admitting fallibility or error. He is quite careless with basic facts on a pretty consistent level and is finding it hard to admit that he is not very good at detail.’

An apology from a public figure invites obvious problems. In the case of Blair, admitting culpability over such a major issue as alleged misuse of intelligence might result in a loss of Labour votes at the polls next year. For corporations, it might invite litigation. So the decision to apologise is a serious one.

Kissmann Langford co-founder and crisis-management expert Martin Langford says: ‘If any corporation has an issue or crisis on their plate, at the very least the spokesperson or CEO should demonstrate absolute concern. A formal apology is only appropriate if the corporation is clearly wrong in its actions or policies and is engulfed in a self-created crisis. Then it is totally appropriate.’

Langford adds that if an apology is to be made it has to be sincere.‘The thing to avoid is a half-hearted apology,’ he says.

Crisis-management firm Regester Larkin director Tim Johnson agrees that for some corporations sorry ‘can be an empty word’.

‘There is no definite answer to the question “Should a corporation apologise?” Every situation is different and depends on what your audience wants to hear,’ says Johnson.

The Sun was quite clear on what its readers wanted after its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster caused outrage in Liverpool. It apologised on several occasions in its editorials over subsequent years before printing a front-page apology this July.

Right to say sorry?

Weber Shandwick senior vice-chairman and former Sun editor David Yelland says: ‘The first thing you must accept is that some corporate errors are so bad that, to be honest, no one’s going to accept your apology. You just have to accept that you have done wrong, as I had to accept The Sun had done wrong over Hillsborough.’

He also points out that a key reason why some organisations avoid apologies is fear of a backlash. ‘If you have alienated your customers or, in the case of a government, put citizens at risk, you must undoubtedly apologise. And yes, there will be a backlash,’ he says.

Once the top person has made the public apology, however, it should not stop there. Langford says apologies play a specific role in crisis management but are not to be treated as an isolated part of a strategy. ‘People think that if a full apology is made, the crisis strategy is over. It is not. It is just beginning,’ he says.

But courage carries risk, and that is the cost-benefit analysis that sometimes stymies the CEO who might otherwise have said sorry.

The apologisers

  • Citigroup apologised last week after an FSA investigation into its operations in Japan showed ‘large profits’ had been ‘amassed illegally’. French retailer Carrefour has since dropped the bank as its financial adviser on the sale of its Japanese operations.

  • Boris Johnson, Spectator editor and Conservative MP for Henley, said sorry to the people of Liverpool last month for accusing them in an editorial of adopting a victim mentality in the wake of Ken Bigley’s murder in Iraq. He said his apology was received with ‘hurt and incomprehension’.

  • Allied Irish Banks apologised in July for overcharging foreign exchange customers to the tune of £9.8m over the past eight years. The bank is looking at ways to return the money.

The unrepentant

  • Prince Harry refused to apologise to a photographer after a scuffle outside a London nightclub two weeks ago, saying the photographer should apologise. The media lauded Harry’s human qualities.

  • Piers Morgan declined to say sorry for printing pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse at the hands of British soldiers that turned out to be fake. Morgan was sacked as editor of the Daily Mirror despite the newspaper’s claims it had published the photos ‘in good faith’.

  • Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congleton, refused to apologise in February for a joke she made about the deaths of 20 Chinese cockle-pickers at Morecambe Bay. Party leader Michael Howard withdrew the whip from her as a sign of intolerance of such behaviour.

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