The Global Manufacturer

The Fine Art of the Public Apology

OK, Lance Armstrong has peddled (sorry, couldn’t resist) to Oprah his very public apology for cheating throughout his historic cycling career. But famous athletes are hardly the only ones these days who have to, as mom told us, “say you’re sorry.” Consider Apple CEO Tim Cook, who admitted that the company’s Maps app didn’t “just work.” Or Akio Toyoda, who told a Congressional panel he was “deeply sorry for any accidents Toyota drivers have experienced.”

Dix & Eaton, a Cleveland-based public relations and crisis communications firm, offers this advice for deciding when to issue an apology and the best way to do it:

  • "If you decide that an apology is the best course of action, do it without reservation and don’t cut corners.The worst thing any company (or leader) can do is offer a half-hearted apology that no one believes is sincere or one that the legal department has watered down so heavily out of liability concerns that no one can understand what it really means.
  • Get bad news out as soon as you can, and deliver the message yourself with as much detail as you can. In the Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o situation, both Te'o and Notre Dame issued statements and held news conferences talking about their investigation and offering details of what they learned to bolster the case that Te'o was duped – that he was somehow an unwilling participant in a cruel hoax. We’ll see if that plays out to be true, but certainly their efforts at transparency while demonstrating embarrassment and remorse make him (and the university) appear a more sympathetic character than Armstrong or Rose, who simply tried to cover it all up. 
  • On the flip side, don’t just apologize for anything and everything only because you think that’s what is expected when a customer, shareholder or activist complains.If you’re in the right, and the person/entity is using you to gain publicity or financial advantage, stick to your guns and make clear why you acted in the manner you did or why you have the policy you do.
  • Don’t wait too long before deciding on a course of action.If you’re going to make an apology, do it promptly. Waiting until you “see how things go” waters down an apology’s effectiveness, while one that is decisive and prompt carries greater weight and as such helps achieve the important objective of minimizing brand damage and shortening the news cycle. In the Armstrong and Rose cases, the story became as much about their trail of deception, vehement denials and counter accusations as it was about the rules they broke in the first place. Don’t let it get that far down the road, and remember that adding lies on top of lies simply isn’t going to work in the long run.
  • Possible legal liability or arrogance/hubris are not good reasons to avoid an apology.Legal considerations are important, but so is brand equity. If your customers turn on you because they think you should apologize but you don’t because you’re afraid of getting sued, you’ll suffer financially anyway. Get some smart lawyers to work with your PR team to help you find a solution, not to stand in the way. Same goes for arrogance and hubris. Find someone you trust who will judge you honestly and ask their opinion of what you should do – if offering an apology is obvious to them, then it should be obvious to you."
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