Public Apologies: The four essential ingredients

We’re living in the era of the apology.  A week doesn’t go by without news of an executive or celebrity who says or does something objectionable; which leads to calls for that person to apologize/be fired/resign; followed by an apology (sometimes good, but more often lacking); and then the cycle begins anew.

So if you’ve got to apologize, here are some guidelines you can follow to ensure your apology gets you on track for reputation recovery, instead of digging a deeper hole for yourself.

Uber, the taxi-hailing and ride-sharing app recently came under scrutiny for comments made by Senior VP Emil Michael during what he thought was an off-the-record dinner in New York (Editor’s note: Always assume you’re speaking on the record). Michael suggested that Uber should spend up to one million dollars to investigate journalists critical of Uber. The comments, once made public, did not go over well, prompting a 13-part Twitter apology from Uber CEO and Founder, Travis Kalanick.

Much can be said about the virtues of a timely and genuine apology. Done right, it can allow an organization to quickly move past an issue.  Poorly executed, it can make the situation worse and further impact a company’s reputation. Maple Leafs Foods saw the benefits of this lesson in 2008 when meat products from one of its plants tested positive for listeria bacteria, causing loss of life and illness to many consumers. CEO Michael McCain swiftly issued a sincere video apology that did not shy away from the issue and made no excuses for the company’s failure. McCain’s apology demonstrated the company was taking responsibility for the situation, reassured the public that Maple Leafs Foods was concerned about their health, and explained the concrete actions the company was taking to remedy the situation and prevent it from happening in the future.

Later it was revealed that McCain issued his apology against advice from the company’s lawyers. McCain’s apology may have not provided much solace for those directly affected by the tragedy, but afterwards the intensity of the negative reaction from the general public and the media noticeably decreased, and attention gradually shifted towards the economic impact of the product recall on the company. Today, PR experts often use the McCain apology as a great example of a good first step toward restoring the public’s faith in the company and its products, and rebuilding the company’s reputation. But whether it’s a tweet, a statement to the media, or a YouTube video, there are fundamental principles that should guide every apology. These principles can help you craft an apology that will be positively perceived, accepted by the public and shift focus away from the issue.

1. Be genuine: If you don’t believe it, it’ll show

This one should go without saying; however, many apologies lose their purpose in trying to justify the wrongdoing or by sounding disingenuous. Brands and executives must remember that an apology is about the people who have been injured, affected, or offended – not about themselves. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s Chief, Tony Hayward enraged the public with an insensitive apology that, despite whatever intentions he had, appeared to be self-serving and disingenuous when he said he’d like his life back.

The lesson from the backlash against Hayward’s apology is clear: It’s not about you.  An apology should not be about the impact that your mistake has had on you or your organization – it should be about offering sincere sympathy and regrets to those affected.

2. No ‘if’s

Politicians, athletes and entertainers love an ‘if’ apology. It is one the best examples of a ‘non-apology apology’. The passive-aggressive nature of using phrases such as “if I offended anyone” or “if that’s how it came across” neither conveys regret nor sorrow. An “if” apology makes it clear that you’ve made it out of necessity and not out of conviction.

3. Take responsibility: Address the issue and those you’ve wronged

There is no one-size-fits-all template for an apology and each situation is different. Sounding robotic instead of actually addressing the situation at hand or those affected makes you seem tone-deaf and out of touch. A general apology has no credibility and does little to restore the public’s faith and trust in a brand.

An apology is also not a time for making accusations or blaming others. Making up excuses and not acknowledging that you might be at fault subjects you to further scrutiny by the media and the public, and can put you publicly at odds and under attack by those you’ve accused or laid the blame on.

Last year, Chip Wilson’s departure from the company he founded was forced by an insincere apology that did not address customers after he blamed women’s bodies for not fitting into Lululemon’s sheer and pilling yoga pants. The same pants had already been recalled earlier and Wilson was apologizing for the second batch of see-through pants – something which clearly showed that Lululemon was at fault. In this case, the apology itself became the center of the controversy and placed Wilson in the line of fire by media, leaving him with no choice but to leave the company and to distance himself from it.

4. Make it better: Don’t just apologize – do something about it

A very important part of an apology is demonstrating that you’re taking some action. Say what you’re going to do to fix the problem.  Whether it’s seeking help for your addictions or cleaning up a mess, outlining your plans and next steps is as important in restoring the public faith in you as the apology itself.

In the case of Uber this week, Kalanick’s Twitter apology (which came after two previous statements by Emil Michael and the company) did mention the challenge that the company is facing of earning back the public’s trust, and that they plan on doing so by highlighting the positive impact Uber has in the communities in which it operates.

However, Kalanick’s apology was viewed by some observers as a non-apology which read more like an internal memo rather than an apology directed at journalists. Other media outlets made it clear in their headlines that Michael would not be removed from his post or reprimanded. And with new revelations that Uber is investigating its top New York executive for tracking a Buzzfeed reporter without permission, there may be one or two more apologies in the works.

UPDATE: April 2015

CNN’s Brooke Baldwin shows everyone how to make a heartfelt, sincere apology. Hat tip: Washington Post

In the midst of the civil unrest in Baltimore, Maryland, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin made comments during a live on-the-street TV interview and commented about the question of police training and readiness:

“I was talking to a city councilman here last week who was saying, ‘Brooke, these people have to live in the communities. There’s no emotional, or there’s a lack of emotional investment,’ ” she said. “And a lot of these young people … and I love our nation’s veterans, but some of them are coming back from war, they don’t know the communities and they’re ready to do battle.”

That clearly didn’t sit well with veterans. To her credit, Brooke Baldwin made a point to lead off her reporting the following day with this well done and heartfelt apology.

Want to read more?