Crisis Communications: 6 Simple Steps To Apologize

Most crisis communications experts, like our own Peter Morrissey, will advise clients to say “you’re sorry” as soon as it has been realized an error has been committed.   While it seems like a common sense response to many of us, to others in industry, government, media and sports — and to the ordinary person — saying “I’m sorry” is often the hardest part of the execution phase of a crisis communications plan.

Typically, however, it’s the only right place to start.

Perhaps its Spring fever, or perhaps the message is finally seeping in.  Whatever the reason, recently it has been raining apologies.

For example, last week President Obama apologized to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai because American military personnel burned Korans in Afghanistan.  In an official apology letter to Karzai, Obama said those responsible will be held accountable.

Here in the U.S, ESPN editor Anthony Federico has been fired from his job after posting the headline, “Chink in the Armor” in a reference to New York Knicks Asian-American point guard Jeremy Lin.

“I’m so sorry if I offended people.  I’m so sorry if I offended Jeremy. … My faith is my life. I’d love to tell Jeremy what happened and explain that it was an honest mistake,” said  Federico, who also said he understands why he was terminated by ESPN (unlike the opinion of my colleague Aimee Charest, my view is ESPN over reacted and putting Federico and other ESPN editors in a sensitivity/diversity training program would have been the right prescription vs. destroying the career of a 28-year-old).

In what is one of the most bizarre stories involving an apology in recent memory is the story of a Cincinnati man who was ordered by a judge to apologize to his estranged wife for 30 consecutive days on the same Facebook page that he criticized her on over their pending divorce; or serve a 60-day jail term.  Apparently, Mark Byron took the 30 days and has been apologizing ever since.

And finally, at least for this round of apologies, Denver Broncos backup quarterback Brady Quinn apologized last week to starting quarterback Tim Tebow for telling “GQ” that much of the team’s success last season was luck and that Tebow’s very public expression of his faith doesn’t “seem very humble.”   Naturally, Quinn says the magazine misquoted him and via twitter says he “reached out to Tim to clear this up. … I apologize to anyone who feels I was trying to take anything away from our Team’s or Tim’s success this season.”

There are as many perspectives on “the apology” as there are apologies themselves.

Quote machine and 1950′s author Margaret Lee Runbec says, “Apology is a lovely perfume; it can transform the clumsiest moment into a gracious gift.”

And cartoonist Lynn Johnston echoes Runbec’s sentiment with,  “An apology is the superglue of life.  It can repair just about anything.”

But opposing views on “the apology” are abundant.  Take legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach who said:  “The only correct actions are those that demand no explanation and no apology.” 

Or British humorist P.G. Wodehouse who offers, “It is a good rule in life never to apologize.  The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”

An apology doesn’t always invite, or earn, forgiveness.  Nonetheless, when a wrong has been committed, it’s usually the right — and smart — thing to do.

Corporations would be wise to build the following apology basics into their crisis communications plans.  Peter Morrissey, who developed them, will be pleased you did –and so will your company.

6 Simple Steps to Apologize

  • Apologize to victims and families first – privately and publicly.
  • Issue a blanket apology.
  • Have the CEO issue the apology and empower employees to do the same.
  • Keep the channels of communication open – keep restating the apology at every opportunity.
  • Keep the public posted on the progress to solve problem.
  • Restate the company’s intent to take responsibility; fix the problem and do what is right.

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4 Responses to Crisis Communications: 6 Simple Steps To Apologize

  1. Mick Toyne says:

    I really enjoyed this, it is amazing how difficult many individuals and organisations find it is to apologise or to recognise the power of apology
    Thanks for reminding me

  2. Norm Hartman says:

    Peter Sandman who is generally acknowledged to be the expert on (and perhaps the father of) the concept of risk communication, suggest that the Catholic Church is the reigning expert on apology and forgiveness. Sandman says the Church suggests five steps, in this order:

    Say what you did.
    Say you’re sorry.
    Make it right. (Correct the problem.)
    Compensate your victims.
    Do a penance.

    More in Peter’s approach is here:

  3. segun Esan says:

    This serves as a good reminder as to what apology, when occasion demands it, can achieve not only to the person saying the apology but also to the recipient of the apology. To apologise is good. Thanks for this reminder.

    Segun Esan.

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