The art of the apology
If you are going to eat shit, don't nibble. - Ben Horowitz
The perfect crisis comms response doesn’t exist. In a crisis, the fog of war means it’s hard to get everything right. But if you’re going to get one thing right, let it be the apology — it’s what people will remember.
Here are the basic ingredients that every apology should have.
1. Say the words
The first rule of apologizing is to apologize. Say the actual words: “I apologize” or “I’m sorry.” Have it come from a specific human being. (After all, if no one was at fault, why apologize?)
The more human and heartfelt the better, which is why “I’m sorry” is better than “we’re sorry.” Don’t try to qualify or hedge. Say, “I’m sorry I…” NOT “I’m sorry you…” or “I’m sorry if…”
And anything is better than the phlegmatic “We regret…”
2. Sorry for what?
Sometimes the corporate apologizer tries to get cute by apologizing for things that are clearly out of their control (sorry about the storm!). Take responsibility for what you did wrong, specifically.
You might need to do some investigation first to make sure that you only share accurate information about what happened. Don’t sugarcoat it or use euphemisms (“the issue”!) and don’t use passive tense (the invertebrate mantra, “mistakes were made”).
Give an explanation (here’s where we went wrong) but not an excuse (it wasn’t really our fault because…).
3. Berate yourself so they don’t have to
Put yourself in the position of the person or people you wronged. Show empathy by describing how you would feel or the specific impact on them. Don’t minimize this or - God forbid - say “at least.” Aswrote in The Hard Thing About Hard Things: "If you are going to eat shit, don't nibble."
They’re likely in the mindset of being ready to disagree with whatever you say, so give them a reason to react with “oh it wasn’t that big a deal” instead of “you don’t seem to get how big a deal this was.”
4. Make amends
Say what you’ll do to make it right or make sure it doesn’t happen again. Warning: at this stage, it’s easy to lie. It might be by accident and with the best intentions — when you’re trying to win someone back, it’s tempting to promise the world.
But do not mortgage your future credibility to make this moment slightly less painful. Only say things that are absolutely airtight and true. What you say here must be able to be taken literally and interpreted liberally. After a breach in trust, the last thing you want is to have to later clarify, “well technically, what I meant was…”
5. Extra point
Follow through, then follow up. Do exactly what you said you would, and if possible, beat expectations: do it sooner than you promised, or give more than you offered. Then, show you’re going the extra mile with accountability by following up: check in with them, apologize again, thank them for their grace and patience, and confirm that you’ve kept your promises.
The key is to do this unprompted, on your own initiative, as you don’t get any points for doing the right thing with a gun to your head.
An effective apology should contain all of these things. Fixing the actual crisis is hard enough. A botched apology doesn’t need to compound your troubles.
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I would have expected the first decision in the WAR room to put out an apology immediately. They did not create a media BAR and did not put out daily updates focusing on a defining a narrative, instead they allowed social media to control the narrative. From a crisis communication perspective, I don't think they hit the mark (I did like the social media push showing pilot passing out coffee). DOT does not get a pass either because they were briefed on Southwest's archaic system months ago and did nothing. The mainstream media is pushing an anti-southwest story but there are others to blame as well. I do wonder how a comms team deals with egos in that environment though. Maybe you can host a podcast with the SW comms team next year to learn about what happened in the WAR room.
Excellent guidance covering just about every step in the process. I’d only add that sometimes lawyers will contend that an apology is an admission of guilt, making the organization more vulnerable to litigation. In most states, however, courts have ruled that an apology and legal guilt are separate and not connected.