For Worst Of fenses, Execs’ Apologies Should be Public and PR Pros Must Fight for the Right Words, Not Best Legal Phrases   


This month’s reader question deals with a critical part of crisis communication, the apology. Our respondent is T. Denise Stokes, who heads DS Marketing & PR.  Most recently, she was a communication manager at Six Flags America. Her response was edited for space and clarity.

We’d like to include your questions. Please send them to: [email protected]

Question: How do you counsel a leader to issue a heartfelt apology, particularly when the person is reluctant to admit culpability? What best practices do you recommend for preparing communicators to handle these situations?

T. Denise Stokes: Let’s assume the executive is accused of misconduct and is apologizing to employees, business partners and possibly the public. In the worst cases–financial, medical or sexual misconduct–the executive(s) should issue a public and private apology.

In most cases, you’re going to have to consult with a legal team before a word can be said. That’s when you, as the PR pro, have to fight for the right words, and not just the right legal words.

You can’t fight too long, though, as time is of the essence. However, a holding statement can buy time for the PR team. A statement also lets the public know that the company, or executive, is at least aware of the situation.

First, you need to let [the executive] know that every word and gesture will be scrutinized, especially since the [optimal] apology is issued via video or TV. Merely sending a written statement to employees, business partners and the public just won’t cut it. A video statement is a much more powerful gesture that will show remorse and contrition.

Prompt expressions of regret and remorse should include ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I regret.’ The executive needs to acknowledge the harm caused to victims, the executive’s role in it and how he/she will change.

Preparing Communicators 

Think through worst-case scenarios. And I mean all the things that you think could never happen in a million years! Do it now. And, do it often. There are times when even quarterly crisis planning isn’t enough, but it’s at least a good start.

It’s not uncommon for a major corporation to have a crisis playbook of 25 pages or more. If you don’t, you have homework to do.

Think through who will be your speaker(s). Ask yourself, are you ready to put your face on a company crisis? Once that’s determined, practice, practice, practice your company message.

If I ever had to beg and plead with an executive to apologize, I would sincerely start considering finding another place of employment! Your reputation as a PR person is also at stake.