Tips for Mastering the Art of Public Apology, or Any Apology for that Matter
As a follow up to my recent post, How to Speak Your Mind and Not Piss People Off, I thought I would move into the subject of what we public relations pros call “issues management” and the fine art of issuing public apologies. If you just want to know how to give a credible apology to anyone, this is still a helpful post. All you need to do is skip down to the part about how to structure your apology. These are basic human relations principles and can easily be applied to both your personal and professional life.
It’s a fact that not all companies make the best business decisions. Even really successful companies can make fatal mistakes that offend their public on some level. Savvy communication skills are absolutely required to deal with the fallout from those errors. Never underestimate the value of formal communications training and the work of a good public relations professional! If you’ve got no time or budget to manage that feat, then follow my advice. Knowledge is power. Keep this post in a file marked “Issues Management” and draw on it should you ever need it.
How can I tell if an issue is critical to my company’s reputation?
Issues are often perceived as being harmless until they blow up into a full blown crisis. Figuring out the best way to manage an issue can be a bit tricky. Here are four factors to consider when assessing the seriousness of an issue.
Give consideration to who the issue affects and why it matters. List all of the internal and external stakeholders in your company. This list might include employees, their families, customers, investors, the community at large, and the media. Think about what their respective points of view could be and the effect they could have on your business. The media should always be given very careful consideration because they are frequently hungry for stories and will exhaust every angle to generate news. If the media has no inkling of the issue, then you can probably just deal with things internally. If you neglect to deal with a serious issue internally, then you are risking a leak from an angry (or even innocent) stakeholder. Be careful.
Imagine your headline. This is a great barometer for deciding if anyone will care. If the headline would cause your external stakeholders to lose respect for your brand or withdraw their financial support, then you definitely need to address things as swiftly as possible. Never bring your apology before the media unless you absolutely have to. You don’t want to create a story. The idea here is to be able to figure out if your issue is newsworthy. If it is, you want to be able to prevent it from becoming public knowledge. Otherwise you will need to manage the story should one surface. That’s a lesson for another day.
Listen to your external audiences. Social listening tools are a great way to figure out what some of your external audiences are saying in social media. Customer complaint forums, and your own customer service representatives also need to be given attention. Once you have that information, you can easily assess the impact of public opinions. Are customers threatening to leave? How many? Try to assess the fallout from your issue as thoroughly as possible.
What’s the worst thing that can happen? Imagining a worst case scenario before anything actually erupts will help you figure out the best course of action. Don’t bury your head in the sand. You definitely want to be in a position to circumvent any looming trouble. That’s because being blindsided by a crisis is no fun!
Is it better to ignore an issue and hope it will go away?
Sometimes it is. Thoroughly assessing the severity of a problem will help you figure out the magnitude of the issue you are dealing with. Here’s the thing you need to be mindful of, however. A series of small but related issues have a way of becoming one big ugly issue. Be very smart in your assessment.
How should I structure my public apology?
Admit your mistake quickly and emphatically. This is a Dale Carnegie human relations principle from the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The old guy was right. If you have never read this book or taken a Dale Carnegie course, you really should. Not admitting your mistake causes people to mistrust you and fuels resentment. The more you attempt to cover things up or twist the truth, the worse you look. In order for your apology to have any impact, you must abandon your ego.
Express your understanding of the consequences. Whether your apology is public or private, no apology is worth anything if you cannot express your understanding of why your mistake was such a big deal. Imagine saying you’re sorry but not really understanding why the other party is upset. How sorry are you, then?
Say what steps you are taking to rectify the situation. Okay, so now you’re sorry. You understand the consequences of your error and the reason it occurred. What are you going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Are you going to retrain your staff? Change your policies and procedures? Develop a better plan for dealing with these issues going forward? There are many ways to prove to your public that your intentions are pure. If you don’t announce these steps and actually follow through with them, then your public will abandon its loyalty toward you. Think of your obnoxious friend who continually transgresses, apologizes and repeats the behaviour. Eventually, you dump them, don't you?
Give absolutely no excuses for your behaviour. Never tell your public that you behaved badly because you were under stress, or that someone was supposed to do something they didn’t, or that you didn’t know. These are lame excuses and excuses don’t actually excuse bad behaviour. Excuses weaken your apology because the unspoken word is that you are not responsible, therefore there is nothing to be genuinely sorry for. The best way to strengthen your apology and have people forgive you is to commit to changing your behaviour and be open about the steps you are taking to do so.
Is there anything to consider doing after the public apology is made?
After you issue your apology, it is essential to take steps to ensure everyone knows you are sincere and do not take the issue lightly.
Make good on your promises. If you follow my suggestions above, then you will have some work to do. Act on whatever you promised to do to rectify the situation and ensure your transgressions are not repeated in the future. If appropriate, issue news releases or internal memos that announce the completion of each commitment you made to change.
Re-establish trust. Now that you have a reputation to repair, you will have to do everything possible to become the good story in the news. What you do here really depends on what you have done to get yourself into trouble. Yes, it is ass kissing time, but you still must be sincere in your efforts.
Be public about the good you stand for. If investors and customers are scrutinizing your every move, then you need to make sure you do things that get noticed. A good corporate example of this would be BP Oil’s efforts to focus on the environment and sustainability. How much you need to do and how long it will take to make a difference really depends on what happened. Generally speaking, once you move into crisis mode, the efforts you make to change your public image need to be much grander.
I hope you find these suggestions helpful. More importantly, I hope you never need to use them. Still, it's good to know...
If you want to learn more about reputation management, then check out my beBee post, Five Things A Certain Bird Never Told You.
If you want to know some professional tricks for enhancing your public image, read my beBee post, Mastering The Art of Perception: What PR people will never tell you
Few public relations & communications specialists have as diverse a background as Renée Cormier. Add published author, employee engagement specialist, sales and marketing strategist, entrepreneur and educator to her list of accomplishments. In her career Renée has held leadership roles in sales and marketing, developed and implemented national marketing strategies and was responsible for teams as large as 28 strong. She brings a wide range of experience and talent to her work.
Renée really shines in marketing communications. She is known for developing and implementing comprehensive communications strategies and generating results through flawless implementation. With such strong business acumen, passion for her work and a natural talent for business strategy, Renée is definitely considered an important resource for her clients. Do you need help with your communications or public relations efforts? Contact Renée through her website.
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