Sorry or Not Sorry? Why Companies Should Apologize

Im sorry graphic for post

There’s nothing like getting a heartfelt apology. And nothing more disappointing than an apology that feels insincere. Setting aside the snark of the Internet – just search for #sorrynotsorry and you’ll see why – apologies are REALLY HARD. They are hard for us as individuals in the course of being human, but they are even harder for organizations.


It’s Complicated!

In their article “The Organizational Apology: A Step-by-Step Guide”  in last September’s Harvard Business Review, co-authors Maurice E. Schweitzer, Alison Wood Brooks and Adam D. Galinsky, write that humans are predisposed psychologically to avoid apologies. So the fact that we are human makes it even harder to apologize if we’re doing so on behalf of an organization. Ouch.

Even more telling is the authors’ suggestion that as soon as we wear our organizational hat, we are far more likely to look at situations from a legal point of view.

“Even a leader who isn’t actively consulting with an attorney may worry that an apology could create legal problems,” they say. “Companies need to stop thinking this way. Most apologies are low cost – and many create substantial value.”

If your organization hasn’t thought about how apologies might be given and under what circumstances, the rest of the article poses 4 questions to consider whether an apology is warranted and suggests the right and wrong ways to apologize, keeping in mind the audience, timing and details of preparing one.

It’s no surprise that business leaders aren’t sure how to apologize since crisis communicators and business advisors often disagree on the tactical side of delivering apologies.

But is our hesitation to apologize part of our culture? Another article in the Harvard Business Review from 2012 analyzed cultural differences between Americans’ approach to apologies and that of the Japanese.

“Our own work found that a core issue is differing perceptions of culpability: Americans see an apology as an admission of wrongdoing, whereas Japanese see it as an expression of eagerness to repair a damaged relationship, with no culpability necessarily implied. And this difference, we discovered, affects how much traction an apology gains.”

Are we so worried about who is to blame that we have trouble offering sincere apologies at all?

Time after time, crisis communicators and reputation management experts advocate swift, sincere apologies. Yet every week, we see another example of a corporate leader delivering an insincere or stilted wreck of an apology.

It turns out, though, that there is a body of research which shows that apologies can affect stock prices immediately. Sincere, sad, responsible? Stock price recovers. Smiling, insincere? Stock price may be affected – and not in a good way. You can read the story about smiling during a crisis in Cyber Alert.

It’s time to remember the importance of sincerity and communicating from the heart. The right apology is part of that sincerity.

Add Crisis of Reputation to Your Crisis Planning Kit

Wrinkled Sheet Of Paper With Inscription "reputation"Most companies planning for their crisis communications focus on physical types of crises like natural disasters and crime. Increasingly, however, it’s just as likely that an organization will face a crisis of reputation and the crisis will happen on social networks. This is a shocker to many traditional companies. You can just imagine the CEO saying: “Why should we put time and resources toward something that does not represent loss of life and limb?”

In short, if you don’t, you’ll be toast.

Online conflicts can be brutal as anyone who has weathered one will tell you, but you CAN survive one. The key is to be aware of what’s going on in the virtual world and to prepare for the next conflict.

“Your online privacy—the combination of what you and other share about you online and what you manage to keep off the Web – and reputation are inextricably intertwined,” says Andrea Weckerle, author of Civility in the Digital Age.

An online conflict can be completely manufactured.  It can spring from erroneous information, a misunderstanding,  or the widespread opinion of a key influencer.  This is completely counterintuitive to how most companies prepare for real crisis communications. It is just as likely to spring from a genuine customer service issue or human resource matter which is advanced by a loud and influential person in your networks.

A traditional crisis usually has a beginning, middle and end, allowing the team to return to a normal state of affairs. This is not always true for an online conflict, which keeps coming back because of the social network convention of sharing and passing along links (false though they may be!) as well as the likely results from search engine queries.

There are things you can do to prepare for this type of crisis, but it does take a time commitment.  First step: find out your current online reputation.  Do this when things are normal, not when something’s brewing.  One thing you can do is Google your company name once a week and see what you find.  Then Google your company name with “stinks” or another bad word and now see what happens. Once you do that, it opens up additional opportunities to search networks like LinkedIn, Glass Door, Yelp and Trip Advisor to see results there, too. Second step: start fixing anything you find which is inaccurate or incomplete.

This only scratches the surface of monitoring your online reputation. Among the many gems in Weckerle’s book is a complete chapter on monitoring your online reputation with detailed instructions on how to do it. This book is a blueprint for managing all types of online disputes, based on Weckerle’s experience as an attorney and as the founder of CiviliNationan organization dedicated to making the internet a more civil place. It is full of relevant case studies and numerous strategies for resolving every type of online conflict imaginable.

Even if your company is not in an all-out crisis of reputation online, learning to navigate negative reviews is part of managing civility online.  The Journal of Consumer Research reported that negative reviews which were polite actually helped to sell the merchandise which was reviewed.

Our research raises the intriguing possibility that brands might benefit when polite customers write reviews of their products — even when those reviews include negative opinions.

The authors — researchers Ryan Hamilton, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Ann L. McGill — found that cultivating civility might make consumers feel better about a product.

So, why should you put time and resources toward something that does not represent loss of life and limb?  Your reputation depends on it.

UPDATE: Click here to get my FREE e-book called “Managing Your Next Crisis.” It’s a free download and will get your organization started on preparation.


33 Ways to Apologize in a Crisis

White board with words "We Screwed Up.." to illustrate 33 Ways to Say I'm Sorry Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to be invited to speak at Social Media Breakfast in Houston, organized by my friend and colleague, Kami Watson Huyse. The topic: “Crisis at the Speed of a Tweet” was a lively discussion, talk-show style, with more than 75 interested participants. The event is live-streamed and you can watch it here. (Warning: the video is one hour long!)

During the question and answer session, I jokingly said that I had 400 ways to say I’m sorry. This was in response to questions about being timely in a crisis.

Upon further reflection, I realized that I had grossly exaggerated the number of ways you could apologize in a crisis – unless of course, you add in foreign languages, which is far from fair. What did seem fair was to take pen to paper and actually write down all the ways to apologize in a crisis. It amounted to the 33 “sentence starters” you see below.

If you find yourself representing a company in a crisis, you will no doubt need to apologize before the crisis is over. And, the rapid turnaround of events might find you a bit tongue-tied or bereft of ideas to convey the right amount of regret to the right audience. This list is designed to help you make the right choice during your next crisis.

  1. There are no words…
  2. We are filled with sadness today…
  3. We were deeply moved by…
  4. We regret to announce that…
  5. I (We) got it wrong and we are sorry…
  6. It distresses us to share this news today…
  7. It is with a sense of loss that we….
  8. We deeply regret that…
  9. We collectively grieve today as…
  10. We were horrified to learn…
  11. Like you, our hearts are heavy…
  12. Words do not adequately express…
  13. We join with the community …
  14. We are anguished to hear….
  15. We sincerely apologize…
  16. We had no idea …
  17. We are deeply troubled…
  18. There is nothing we can say to make up for this mistake…
  19. We completely sympathize with the current situation…
  20. We apologize for the error…
  21. We ask for your understanding at this time…
  22. Please forgive the….
  23. Nothing can excuse….
  24. Please pardon our…..
  25. We do not condone…
  26. We screwed up and we take full responsibility…
  27. Our actions were inexcusable….
  28. What we did was careless….
  29. Please allow us the opportunity to…
  30. We regret any part of our actions which may have played in this situation…
  31. We are disappointed and will take immediate action…
  32. We have learned a lot from this and we are taking actions to ensure this never happens again.
  33. You are right to be frustrated.

Special Note: Contributions to this list came from my colleagues at #solopr including Karen Swim, Bill Bonner, Kami Huyse and Cherie Gary.

What creative ways have you used to apologize in a crisis?

UPDATE: Click here to get my FREE e-book called “Managing Your Next Crisis.” It’s a free download and will get your organization started on preparation.

7 Deadly Sins of Companies in Crisis

Every day, a company somewhere finds itself in crisis. Some will handle it expertly but others will completely bomb out. Here are seven epic mistakes or “sins” that will lead an organization in crisis down a path of fractured reputation and poor crisis response.

1. Unprepared — the unprepared organization has no plan, wallows in confusion, looks like a deer in headlights.
2. Arrogant — this company or its leadership loses sight of the big picture. It’s all about them and their reputation and not about those affected by the crisis.
3. Reactive –the reactive organization is too close to the situation, takes the social media chatter too personally, gets defensive.
4. Indecisive — an indecisive company is having a crisis of leadership, has lost trust with its stakeholders.
5. Insensitive — the insensitive company is robotic, lacks emotion, tries too hard to dispense with the problem.
6. Distant — the organization is out of touch with its audiences. They might appear lost.
7. Evasive — this company is sneaky, has something to hide, or is not ready to admit fault.

How can you avoid being on the 7 deadly sins list? If you feel your organization might be in danger of being indecisive, distant or evasive, it’s time to look carefully at how your organization can become honest, thoughtful and considerate — before your next crisis.

UPDATE: Click here to get my FREE e-book called “Managing Your Next Crisis.” It’s a free download and will get your organization started on preparation.

Roundabout Responses in a Crisis

It’s hitting the fan. Your organization is in crisis and you have 30 minutes to get your act together and prepare the first response.  The challenge for any organization in crisis is that you are still gathering facts to figure out what happened yet the “always-on” media and persistent public demand a response.

It is at this moment during a crisis that most organizations falter – by trying to deliver a statement that is the definitive answer to multiple stakeholders.  In the current media environment, that concept is frustrating and false. Frustrating because you can’t know everything about the crisis yet and false because by the time you get the statement is approved internally, the information will change.

What should you do avoid losing your momentum and satisfy those who are watching you?

Craft a quick bridging response.

A bridging response is simple, straightforward, yet slightly vague.  It acknowledges to all your stakeholders that you are AWARE of what is happening, that you are RESPONSIVE to what’s happening, yet buys time until you actually have real information. Verified information.

Many organizations are routinely affected by weather conditions. We know that there is a hurricane season annually and other parts of the country are routine plagued by tornadoes. While each storm system is different, there are often commonalities. So using an example of a weather crisis for an example, let’s see how this approach could play out.

An extreme storm hits your town, causing power outages and damage.  How much damage? Is anyone hurt? When will you be up and running again? What should we do in the meantime?  You probably can’t answer all these questions in the space of 30-45 minutes, but here’s what you CAN say.

We have been affected by [storm name or condition or event] and are in the process of assessing the effects to [people, place].  Right now, our teams are [share what they are doing: touring the facility, driving the area, etc] and as soon as we know more, we will keep you updated.

Bridging responses help establish that you are in control and working the problem, which makes media-watchers much more forgiving than the organization that waits until their statement is just “perfect.” But, it’s up to you and your organization to keep your stakeholders updated periodically as new, and verified, information becomes available.

First Advice in a Crisis: Do No Harm

Do no harm. This was the first thing I was taught about crisis planning, back in the mid-1980s way before cell phones and Twitter. Twenty-plus years later and it’s still the best piece of advice anyone can follow.   It is an integral part of every crisis planning and crisis response session I teach.

The second piece of advice came from my years as a Girl Scout:  Be Prepared.  While no one waits around for a crisis to happen, there are so many things you can do in advance of an unforeseen event that will help your organization manage it and move on.

Many organizations do crisis planning and response well, and literally scratch their heads when they see the gaffes committed by those organizations who make big mistakes under fire.  If you haven’t yet thought about what would happen in a crisis, here are three objectives commonly used in visualizing the problem.

Contain the Risk

This means responding to the actual crisis, whether it is natural or manmade, accidental or intentional.  It also means to secure the people and places that are involved in the event.

Resolve the Problem

This is pretty self explanatory for weather events. If it’s a fire, put it out. If it’s a thunderstorm, clean up the damage.  For manmade or intentional events, though, the road to resolving the problem is far more complicated.

Communicate Effectively throughout the Process

This means to talk about what’s happening, give advisories, warnings, share images, updates and information. Where some organizations get into trouble is when they consider these three principles as happening one at a time, when in fact, they often happen simultaneously.

Smart organizations know that many elements of crisis planning CAN and ARE planned in advance.  This can be as simple as creating a phone list or as involved as creating a triage team for larger incidents and practicing how you will respond.

But you’ve got to start somewhere. Here are some links to get you started in planning YOUR next crisis.

This series is a preview of my presentation tomorrow for 100 tourism professionals from around the state who are attending Travel and Tourism College. The week-long educational opportunity is an initiative of the Texas Tourism Industry Association (TTIA) and is now in its second year.

Part 2:  6 Mistakes Organizations Make in a Crisis

Part 3: Crisis Planning Includes Packing a Bag

Part 4: Before Your Next Crisis: Assign Roles and Responsibilities