Bracing for When (Not if) Your Brand Has to Apologize



Hardly a week goes by without a public figure, celebrity or CEO apologizing for something.

For PR pros, educating clients on how to apologize has become a key part of their counsel. That’s because, in the majority of cases, it’s not a matter of if someone at your brand or organization will have to publicly apologize, but when.

Apologies are a delicate art. Of course, a lot depends on the the severity of the crisis and the blowback from the public.

Calling it “the most egregious error of my career,” ESPN sportscaster Stephen A. Smith apologized last week for remarks about domestic violence. Smith said on-air that female victims of abuse should be aware of actions they take to provoke their assailants.

“Unfortunately, I did an incredibly poor job of asserting my point of view this past Friday. For that, again, I am truly, truly sorry,” Smith said. “Particularly the victims of domestic abuse and to my female family members and loved ones I've disappointed, and who know I know better. You all deserved a better professional, and quite frankly a better man sitting on this set, in this very chair. My heartfelt apologies.” (ESPN has suspended Smith.)

Rest assured, Smith’s apology will be eclipsed by the next penance. Americans love forgiving people. But they hate it if you fail to apologize in the first place.

With that in mind here are few tips on how to apologize and, as we all like to insist, move on, compliments of Karen Friedman, a professional communications coach:

  • Own up. Rule number one is take responsibility and do it on your own—not because you’re pressured. If you made a mistake, admit it and then explain what you’re doing to fix it and make good to those who were hurt.
  • Fix the problem. An apology is not a fix. If you are truly remorseful, then offer something tangible to those who were affected. It might be a discount, a flight upgrade or free product.
  • Put a face on it. How you say it is as important as what you say. From eye contact to gestures to posture to facial expressions, all of you must convey sincerity and heartfelt sorrow.
  • Make it about them. Unlike the BP executive who said this was the worst day of his life, make sure the apology is about those who were affected. Apologize for their inconvenience, for your underestimation of a situation, for something spiraling out of control that could have been prevented. Talk about them, not about you.
  • Use the right platform. Tweeting an apology to your followers might be OK as long as you’ve reached out to those you’ve wronged first and offered a more detailed and forthright apology on your website or Facebook page. 140 characters aren’t enough to make amends. Finally, think through your actions in advance. A well-crafted, genuine apology is the first step to moving on.

What would you add to the list?

To learn more about crisis communications, register for PR News’ Crisis Management Boot Camp, which takes place September 15 in New York City.

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @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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  • FlackOps

    Your statement “Americans love forgiving people” is post on. Almost everyone of us is actually hard-wired to react favorably to a genuine apology. Great piece.