PR Insider: The Executive Apology, Avoid Making It Worse Once You’ve Already Screwed Up

All corporate executives have one thing in common: At some point, they or their company will screw up.

Some issues won’t go beyond affecting a small group or an individual (e.g. "The barista at my local coffee shop gave me a double pump of skim rather than 2% #DayRuined!"). Other problems they face will be external, possibly causing harm to a broad audience and resulting in front-page, prime time news coverage.

Whether they run a company of five or 500, what keeps most CEOs up at night is fear that a problem will become a crisis or already is. It doesn’t matter if the issue of the day is a single error or a national one, to mitigate a full-blown crisis, corporate executives must have a well thought out communications plan, and part of that plan should focus on how to react when a mistake occurs.

Even the most seasoned executive can rely on the following tips to avoid making an issue worse after something has gone wrong.

> Apologize. Even if it’s not your fault.
As any parent knows, sometimes it’s necessary to apologize, even if the mistake isn’t technically your fault. Your normally well-behaved child punched his teacher? Although you didn’t do it, you apologize. Why? Simple. Because it’s the right thing to do.

Apologizing immediately shows that you acknowledge that something wrong has occurred. It does not equate to admitting any wrongdoing.

While some business leaders might assume that apologizing is equivalent to accepting liability for an incident, the fact is, it is possible to be regretful for an incident even if something isn’t your fault.

> Take immediate action.
Take control of the conversation before it’s too late. One of the worst things that corporate leaders can do when faced with bad news is to assume they can get through the crisis by doing and saying nothing or waiting until the issue “blows over”.

Burying your head in the sand to avoid danger is just as foolish as it sounds. Audiences are much more willing to accept an immediate apology than prolonged cowardice.

By taking immediate proactive action, a corporate executive can avoid a negative response among audiences and defuse a crisis before it explodes. It’s important to be the first out of the gate to acknowledge the situation and its impact on the victims. Waiting to take action until after there is already an uproar is a good way to assure that your message is lost to negative press.

> Be sincere.
Focus on the emotional impact of the problem, not the legal issues the company might face. Audiences, both internal and external, will want to know that the person speaking to them actually cares about them.

While the need for sincerity may seem like it should go without saying, it’s in the midst of a crisis when it becomes most important. The fact that the issue at hand impacts lives should not be lost in favor of finding the right words to communicate a thought or drive an action. When it comes to offering an apology, it’s far more important to show sincerity than to mimic corporate speak or communicate in "legalese".

A perception of being insincere can galvanize an audience against a company and its leaders, resulting in ongoing damage even once the crisis has passed.

> Respond where it happened.
Did the crisis break on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube? Companies and corporate leaders should consider the forum where the crisis initially broke or where it has received the most attention and leverage the same platform for apologies and responses. The fact that an issue came to light in a certain place indicates that’s where the company’s public is active.

If a company were facing a crisis in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t try to fix the problem from New York. If a company’s audience is active on Twitter, it should first communicate there and extend that communication to other platforms. It’s important to show that the company recognizes its audience and that it is willing to go where customers are to speak to them directly.

> Commit to an investigation.
It’s not enough to say sorry. Corporate leaders should show that they want to understand how a situation happened and why it happened in order to make sure that it doesn't happen again. In addition to committing to investigating a situation, corporate leaders should clearly indicate that they plan to share their findings with the public once it has been gathered and analyzed.

Committing to an investigation shows that the company is taking the issues seriously and equally important, it gives the company time to find out the relevant details of the problem while providing the public time to grieve knowing that there is some assurance that action will be taken.

> Remedy the situation.
If you or your company is at fault, make it right. Make the organizational or policy changes necessary to prevent the situation from occurring again and deliver appropriate compensation to those who were impacted. If your organization is not to blame, help bring a just resolution to the situation and lobby to put safeguards in place to protect the public and your customers.

Mistakes happen. The steps that corporate executives take to manage issues when they come up will determine their success. An immediate, sincere apology that commits to taking action will resonate with key audiences and influencers and can be effective in mitigating damage and salvaging a reputation. In some instances, an organization's response to actions can actually build customer loyalty and restore faith.

Sandra Fathi is president of Affect. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @sandrafathi.

  • mlohr

    Sandra, great article on crisis management 101. It’s amazing how many examples there are of brands failing to offer a simple apology because they feel- pretending the issue never happened or hoping it won’t remain newsworthy or delaying their response until the problem is resolved- a better option. In my opinion, transparency during a crisis is often your best bet at mitigating the aftermath.