PR Needs to Master The Art of the Public Apology


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Americans are a forgiving lot. But you already knew that. Nevertheless, making a public apology is an art form, and something that communicators need to be well-versed for those times when there is a screw up and the only solution is to say you’re sorry.

We got two stark reminders of the pubic apology this week.

President Obama apologized Thursday to Americans who are losing their health insurance despite his repeated promises that they wouldn’t.

“I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me,” Obama said in an interview with NBC News. “We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and that we’re going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”

Hmmm, maybe the “you know” reference was by design, in order to make Obama seem humble and contrite. The president is betting that making a public apology could mitigate the damage wrought by the rollout of the health care law.

And on Friday morning CBS News correspondent Lara Logan apologized about a “60 Minutes” segment regarding last year's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya.

Logan said on “CBS News This Morning” that it was a “mistake” to put on a security officer whose credibility has since been undermined by his diverging accounts of what happened that night, according to The New York Times. She added: “We will apologize to our viewers, and we will correct the record on our broadcast on Sunday night.”

Similar to the president’s apology, it’s rare for the august “60 Minutes” to make a public apology. So if two of the most powerful institutions in the country deem it necessary to apologize, what chance have you got?

In light of the apology tours this week, here are some tips on the public apology, compliments of Sandra Fathi, president of PR and social media agency Affect.

> 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.”

> 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.

> 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.

Learn more about survival tactics during a crisis at PR News' Media Relations Next Practices Conference Dec. 12 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1




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About Matthew Schwartz

Group Editor, PR News: Matthew Schwartz is group editor of PR News, the leading source of trends, how-to content and best practices for PR professionals. Matthew leads the editorial strategy for PR News’ premium content products—including its weekly newsletter—and for its digital presence. Matthew was editor of PR News from 2003-2005. Prior to returning to PR News, Matthew was a reporter for Crain’s BtoB and Media Business magazines, where he covered business marketers and media companies. He was also editor of BMA Buzz, a biweekly email newsletter covering B2B marketing, advertising and social media, and contributing writer to Advertising Age Custom. Matthew has helped to launch blogs on behalf of ZoomInfo and direct marketing agency The Kern Organization. He also spent a few years in cable-news precincts, working as a writer/producer at CNN and Fox News Channel.



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