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Crisis Communications: Sorry Excuses

  August 26, 2021

It's practically a daily occurrence that a celebrity, other high profile person, or a corporation is issuing a public apology for some wrong-doing or perceived wrong-doing.  Some of these apologies have become cookie cutter and simply don't come off as sincere.  They are more of an excuse than a true apology.  And, unless the mea culpa is followed by real action steps--ways to change future behavior, it likely won't sway the public.

Look no further than the apology issued by the now former host of "Jeopardy," or by the now former Governor of New York. I advise clients to skip the fill-in-the-blanks apologies.  For example:

  • "If I offended anyone..."
  • "It doesn't represent who I am..."
  • "I didn't realize that word/phrase/behavior was offensive..."

If you are issuing an apology, you have offended people.  If multiple examples of bad past behavior are uncovered, it does represent you.  Generational differences is not a valid explanation. 

Most of us have done or said something we regret at some time in our lives.  But many people simply do not know how to issue a sincere apology.  It's 2021, and if you are an adult who cares about your reputation you need to learn.  Your lawyer may be advising you to parse your words carefully so you don't put yourself or your company at risk of legal action.  I get that.  But the public isn't naive.  They can detect BS pretty easily.

There is no one right way to apologize but there are plenty of wrong ways. 

  • Victim blaming
  • Downplaying your role
  • Not demonstrating how you will change your behavior
  • Waiting way too long to apologize

If a company has blundered with an ad campaign that comes across as sexist, racist, homophobic or discriminatory is any way, it will want to move past it quickly.  My advice to clients: end the campaign, issue a heartfelt apology, and make sure you have a diverse group of decision-makers in the future.  When I see an offensive ad, I wonder how it ever got green lit in the first place.  It likely says a lot about the company's diversity.

Communications professionals can help massage your crisis messaging, but they can't teach sincerity.  You are either sorry or you aren't.  If your apology is to be issued via a video or in a broadcast interview, you'll want to practice so you don't fumble.  But it cannot be an act.  The public will see right through that. You need to win back their trust and respect.  It's not a one and done thing.  But a solid apology is a good first step.

Women Media Pros is now offering a workshop on Inclusive Corporate Communications.  
 

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