Designing an official apology – when companies have to admit mistakes

By | 15/08/2016

Okay – summer vacation is over and we better get back to work! And I’ll start right a way with a note on the best piece of writing on I have read this summer – one that certainly provides some inspiration for the upcoming textbook updates of “Introduction to Corporate Communication”.

The Harvard Business Review in its September issue featured a long article on companies’ apology practices, including a lot of very helpful stuff on designing a decent and suitable apology. When we think about corporate apologies, there are probably a few ones that you still remember quite well, because of their resulting negative media reporting. Take Tony Hayward’s apology for the BP oil spill in the gulf of Mexico as an example:

Hayward’s apology – which he later on repeated virtually every time he was seen on television earning him a Southpark episode –  already showcases a few issues with corporate apologies. First of all it is quite obvious that companies don’t necessarily like to apologize (Well who likes after all?). This might be because of the simple fact that a whole organization has to stand in for the mistakes of a few people, the negative effects on the company’s image, or even the legal consequences of a clear apology. Secondly, as the BP example shows us, it is quite a challenge to find the right balance between professionalism and emotions in such difficult situation. Very often, an apology doesn’t sound honest or sometimes even is to personal. However, as Schweitzer, Brooks and Galinsky clearly point out in HBR, companies have to overcome the fear about a potential loss of face or power and acknowledge that an apology can also create or rebuild value for the company if done correctly.

It is of course up to the company to decide whether it should apologize or not, but the researchers give three cues to help with this decision:

  1. Was there a real or perceived violation? So did the company in some way cause physical or psychological harm or in any other way breached the trust relationship between stakeholders and company?
  2. Was the violation “core” or “noncore”? Was the incident related to a company’s core products or activities? Or was it rather involving business functions outside its core operations (granting a bit more flexibility in the apology decision)?
  3. How will the public react? What is the relative size and importance of the involved parties to the incident? How likely is a big public response to the incident?

If a company decides that it better should come up with an apology, there are a lot of factors to consider in order to avoid some often encountered pitfalls. Consequently, the authors come up with their “apology formula” (well, sounding more mathematic than it actually is). So basically a corporate apology has five aspects to consider:

  1. Who gives the apology – a senior leader or someone further down the hierarchy
  2. What the company apologizes for – including the case / substance, an explanation (but not too defensive), immediate action as well as what the company learns from the case for its future business
  3. Where the company apologizes – so in which context, with what communication tactic – a press statement, a press conference, a public hearing etc.
  4. When the apology is done – so how quickly after the incident / case
  5. How the apology is delivered – so the style, language and specific words chosen

So let’s finally consider a positive case, where a company finally stood up to its responsibility signaling both the

The full piece can currently be accessed on the HBR blog at:

Enjoy the read!

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