Gini Dietrich

Crisis Communications 101: Apologize First…and Mean it

By: Gini Dietrich | October 19, 2016 | 
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Crisis Communications 101: Apologize First...and Mean itWhy are the words “I’m sorry” so hard?

ESPECIALLY in marriage.

I kid. Sort of.

You totally know what I mean, though.

You’ve had a fight. You both think you’re right, but an apology does need to be had, if only so you don’t go to bed angry.

Who goes first?

I’ve found, the older I get, the easier it becomes…that and I really do like Mr. D.—a lot—so I don’t want him mad at me.

You apologize. You move on. The world doesn’t end.

And yet…

Crisis Communications 101: Don’t Lie, Then Apologize Later

This is a real problem in business, too.

A really great example of this is when Hillary Clinton was asked if she had deleted important emails.

At first she denied it, which really got under my skin.

Crisis communications 101: Come clean immediately, apologize, and move on.

That way it doesn’t become a story…or at least a story that never ends.

And yet…it’s as if she learned nothing from her husband lying about his relations with “that intern.”

She finally admitted that emails had been deleted and, when asked about it during the first debate, she swiftly admitted it, apologized, and moved on to her message.

The way she handled it during the debate was perfect. Too bad it wasn’t the first time she was asked about it.

Learn the Lesson Quickly

The examples of what not to do, when it comes to an apology are many: Tiger Woods, BP, Kenneth Cole, and Paula Deen.

It’s easy to find what not to do, which proves an apology is so hard for human beings, in general.

But it’s a really important lesson to learn…quickly.

In marriage, in life, and in business, the sooner you come clean and apologize, the better off you are in the long-run.

My mom used to say to us, “If I am going to hear about something from your teachers, I had better have heard it from you at first.”

What we learned is punishment was far greater if we thought we could get away with something and didn’t say a word (a lesson one of my brothers had a really hard time learning).

From time-to-time, you will have to apologize for actions that may have affected your clients or customers.

It’s just life. We can’t all be right all of the time (which is a really hard lesson for me to learn).

Apologies can signal different things based on the circumstances.  

The typical goal is an expression of remorse, but in business, it can also announce a new attitude or policy or indicate a change in culture.

Common sense and decency dictates the public face of the organization issue the apology.

Done well, it’s a powerful way for consumers to connect with a brand (especially if it’s a large company) in a personal way.

Five Ways to Apologize and Mean it

When Delta had a massive IT failure that left thousands of people stranded, CEO Ed Bastian recorded a video apology.

It doesn’t come across as a parsed, legalistic statement.  

It’s direct, to the point, and empathetic.

Here are five really good things he did, that you can take back to the office for the next time you have to apologize.

  1. The video was personal. Bastian apologized personally and on behalf of the company. Without excuses.
  2. With empathy, he acknowledged the difficulty customers experienced. It was sincere and believable.
  3. He set appropriate expectations about correcting course and admitted the problems weren’t fixed.
  4. A token voucher was offered to customers who were affected, which was a step in rewarding loyal Delta travelers.
  5. He acknowledged his team, which was a nice touch. The airport employees are the face of the company and, though none of this was their fault, they were affected more than any others.

Bad things happen. Mistakes are made, systems fail, or people just use bad judgment.

Apologies may not fix what’s broken, but it’s a sure step one to setting things right.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • This is on point.

    The only issue I have is that Delta historically has screwed individual travelers with zero care in the world. Would be nice for the CEO to change that.

    Not sure if you ever knew of Delta Skelter but google it. Joseph Jaffe who was a 100K traveler was treated badly and yes it was 2008 but he was a big name in social then and they did nothing for him. They screwed me in 2000. maybe it was just the scale that had the CEO do something?
    http://www.jaffejuice.com/2008/06/delta-skelter.html

    • And I only fly American so I don’t have personal experience with them.

  • Pete Salmon

    Apologies are a lot like haggis. They get easier to digest with time. I have no problem apologizing anymore. I used to, then I got married. We implemented a practice that some might want to try. When we wake up in the morning, she looks at me with a face full of hope for the day and says, “Good Morning!” I look back at her and say, “I’m sorry.”

  • Jen

    Great post Gini–and I agree that step 1 in *almost* any brand crisis is to apologize.

    As an aside, my colleague over at Media Bullseye (Jordan) wrote a piece (http://www.mediabullseye.com/2016/10/the-public-apology-make-the-most-out-of-im-sorry/ ) on this very topic centered on the EpiPen debacle…and I wrote a companion piece about when a company *can’t* apologize, due to legal issues (scheduled to post tomorrow, I think).

    The legal issues question is an important one, and anyone in PR should be aware of the legal issues surrounding issuing an apology, particularly state laws that can vary on the follow-on legal consequences of saying “I’m sorry.” In a nutshell, apologizing can be construed as an admission of fault–not a huge issue if travelers are stranded, but an enormous potential problem in the face of illness, injury, or death. For instance the biggest consumer product recall in U.S. history…

    • Very important distinction, Jen. In both of the cases you point out, it would have been very bad for the companies to apologize.

      P.S. Happy Birthday!

      • Jen

        Ha, thanks for the b-day wish!

  • The worst are the non apology apologies. “I’m sorry you were offended’ is not an apology!

    • Yesss! Or “I’m sorry, but..” If you can qualify your apology, it’s not an apology!

  • Spot on Mrs D. I run social media crisis simulations from time to time and one of the first things I tell people is that saying sorry is not an admission of liability. Just frickin’ apologise!

  • Spot on Gini. Mistakes happen! It is what we do next that really makes the difference in the end result.

  • To do that, to apologies implies taking a position of humility. It’s putting yourself in the other’s shoes.

    Some are willing to do that, some not so much.

    But most of the times a sincere apology prevents a crisis.

  • Bill Smith

    Crisis comm 101, Recording the apology on video with the CEO is the smart way to do it.

  • susancellura

    True story: E is learning all about the election process, campaigning, debating, etc., in class. They pulled names out of the hat and formed parties – Republican, Democrat, etc. Each team has a candidate that one student represents. E is Hillary, which means she has to debate the other candidates in class. During the ride to school the other morning, her friend asked E what she was going to do in the debate because she had a tough road ahead of her, “what with the emails and all”. E responded, “I’m going to say I’m sorry and move on.” (I DID NOT COACH HER!) I laughed to myself and had a “proud mom” moment.

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