Apologize or Advocate: Choices for Crafting Statements During Pandemic

Joshua J. Smith, Assistant Professor, Robertson School of Media and Culture, VCU

As stores and businesses suspended operations in the wake of the pandemic, many sent customers updates of new business hours, closures, delays and service suspensions.

There’s an important question every organization should ask at the start of a crisis: What do we tell our customers, audience and stakeholders?

But at the heart of that quest lies a deeper question: How should we tell them?

Let’s say there are three stages of a crisis: pre-crisis, crisis and post-crisis. Others break down the middle stage into several additional steps.

All Crisis Plans Are The Same

Some crisis plans are cyclical, others are flat and some never end. If you look back at crisis communication case studies over the years, you’ll notice a consistency. Every communication plan demonstrates an organization trying to come out of a crisis with as little damage as possible. The goal is always the same: getting to post-crisis as soon as possible.

In some instances, businesses come out better off than when they went into a crisis. An example is the famous Tylenol crisis in 1982.

Others do their best, ending up with an A for effort, but an F in public trust. The example here is the 2016 fiasco with batteries in the Samsung Galaxy Note7.

In some instances, businesses never recover fully, such as when United violently removed a passenger from one of its planes and CEO Oscar Munoz’s statements to the press and to employees actually made the situation worse.

What’s The Best Route?

We know that no two crises are the same. However, the best indices of public opinion in a crisis often is the first statement, quote or release the organization issues. It’s a defining and critical piece of evidence that sets the tone for the organization. It’s also the official position that an organization takes with regard to its audience, and it’s a critical first step in crisis mitigation.

Crisis communications often means breaking, or responding to, bad news. There are many ways to communicate bad news, and the tone and verbiage go a long way toward framing audience opinion.

Here, organizations have to make a choice: Do they want to take a firm position of advocacy or apology? This presents a communication paradox.

PR scholars have researched crisis communications for decades. Theories and models have emerged to help practitioners articulate and map out these situations. These include the Contingency Theory of Accommodations and the Contingency Continuum.

With these, an organization must choose a position on a scale of advocacy to accommodation. Similarly, when crafting statements, quotes and releases to the public in a time of crisis, organizations must take a stance.

The Advocate

Consider this hypothetical situation: a community gym closes to limit the spread of COVID-19. In an email to members, the business says:

“In an effort to flatten the curve, and reduce the rate of contamination among our members, we are closing all gym locations until further notice. We believe this is the right thing to do, and that it is our social responsibility to put the health and safety of our community first. We hope you will continue to stay active at home, and we are providing a list of at-home workouts to keep you moving. We thank you for your understanding, and will see you again when we reopen.”

Here, the organization is clearly taking a stance of advocacy. It starts with a goal “to flatten the curve, and reduce the rate of contamination.”

The note goes on to say, “we believe this is the right thing to do” and “it’s our social responsibility.” While the gym thanks its members for their understanding, it never apologizes for inconvenience or short notice. This organization comes off as an authority, standing by its decisions.

The Apologist

Now, consider the same organization, but in this instance it is taking an apologetic stance:

“As suggested by health officials, to reduce the rate of contamination among our members, we have decided to close all gym locations until further notice. Your health and safety are our top priority and ingrained in our mission. We know the gym is a haven for many who use working out as a healthy means of dealing with stress, preventing illness and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

We hope you will continue to stay active at home, and we are providing a list of at-home workouts to keep you moving. We apologize for any inconvenience or added stress this may cause. We hope to see you back again when we reopen.”

Here we see the organization putting the onus on another entity, and an ambiguous one at that. The gym is not claiming responsibility; rather it frames the statement by putting the members’ best interest in the second line: “Your health and safety are our top priority and ingrained in our mission.”

Most notably, the note ends with an apology: “We apologize for any inconvenience....”

Let’s go back and look at the examples cited earlier. In the example of the statement from Samsung ( see link below), did the company take a stance of advocacy or apology? If you’re thinking advocacy, you’re right, especially when you compare it to the video statement COO Tim Baxter put out later, which is clearly apologetic.

What about the United statement to employees? Read it again. Advocacy or apology? If you’re saying advocacy again, you’re right.

Put The Audience First

  • You can do both, advocacy and apology. But one will always outshine the other. When crafting a narrative during a crisis, consider both sides of the paradox.
  • Put audience members first. Meet in the middle and tell them what they need to know.
  • Advocating doesn’t always mean being firm. In the hypothetical example above, the gym statement indicated, “We believe this is the right thing to do, and that it is our social responsibility to put the health and safety of our community first.” This is an organization taking a stance of advocacy for the greater good of the community.
  • Apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at fault. There’s always something to apologize for in business.
  • Write your statement, then reread it to see how much you favor one side over the other. Then ask, ‘Is that the stance you want to take?’ How likely are you to change that stance? What does your audience need to know? How does your stance affect that? Should the legal department weigh in?
  • Whether you advocate or apologize, make only promises you can keep, and remind your audience when you do. You’ll have ample time to make good on promises and even make changes that result in positive outcomes. Starbucks, for example, during the racial incident in Philadelphia in 2018, held mandatory training for employees, clearly following up on its promise.
  • Mix the good with the bad. Offer remedies, solutions and resources to help audiences through the crisis. Think beyond what you can offer and point your constituency to resources from other organizations. It shows you care about more than your bottom line.
  • If you’re going to purely advocate, expect pushback. Some might see it as rude, insensitive or irresponsible. Brands that advocate have to be mature and stand by their statements. Taking a stance of pure advocacy requires conviction and strong leadership. Make sure you have both.
  • Apologize when you have solutions in place. You can’t just say sorry. You have to apologize and explain that you’re taking steps to avoid a recurrence.

Note: Links for examples of apology and advocacy statements mentioned in this article.

Samsung: shorturl.at/NO456

Starbucks: shorturl.at/iuGP5

Starbucks: shorturl.at/diLT4

United: shorturl.at/dozAW

CONTACT: [email protected]