The Hardest Word | Brunswick Group

The Hardest Word

When it’s time to apologize make sure you mean it.

Archie: All right, all right, I apologize.
Otto: You’re really sorry?
Archie: I’m really, really sorry, I apologize unreservedly.
Otto: You take it back?
Archie: I do, I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact, and was in no way fair comment, and was motivated purely by malice, and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you, or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.
Otto: OK.

Kevin Kline (Otto) wrenching an apology from John Cleese (Archie) by holding him outside a window upside down, in the 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda.

There comes a time in the lifecycle of every company, government agency, corporate executive, celebrity, athlete, official and 12-year-old, when the only rational option is to issue a sincere, heartfelt apology.

It happens to the best of us—we screw up. The fact is, here on Planet Earth things often go wrong. Your software goes kaflooey and shuts down your website. Your CEO is photographed canoodling with someone other than his or her spouse. Your oil wells leak. Your drugs sicken patients rather than cure them. You’ve lost client data, cost them money, or otherwise failed to live up to commitments to your customers, clients, employees, partners or fans. You’ve been thoughtless, or selfish, or irresponsible, or sloppy, or simply stupid. In one way or another, you have screwed up royally.

Time to apologize.

But apologies are not a form of communications to take lightly. In any corporate crisis, the ability to emotionally connect with the public through communications will be a key factor in keeping control of events and retaining trust. In short, when you need to apologize, you need to be sincere or it will show.

Of course, your lawyers will weigh in, and the balance between an apology and admitting liability will always be difficult to resolve. But bear in mind that the lawyer you need is one who will help you communicate openly and effectively with your stakeholders.

Now, let us be clear what an apology accomplishes—and what it does not. It is not a magical cure-all. It doesn’t negate inappropriate or inopportune behavior. It will not prevent lawsuits from being filed against you. It won’t necessarily save your job, or keep you out of the clink, or scrub your reputation clean. But a clear, specific, genuine apology can go a long way toward softening the public’s harsh indictment of your misdeeds. It can be the crucial first step in turning a crisis around.

Just in case you ever find yourself dealing with a corporate snafu, here are some pointers:

1. Avoid being defensive. Want to dig yourself an even bigger hole than you’ve already dug for yourself? Start making excuses. The dog ate my homework. It was the hurricane’s fault. We just got here, the decisions were made under the previous administration ... Don’t go there. Before you can start apologizing, you have to take responsibility.

2. Lay out the facts. Resist the temptation to engage in spin control. Give people the unvarnished truth. Don’t engage in cover-ups. Simply tell people what actually happened and you will be halfway home.

3. The buck stops at the top. Apologies are going to be far more meaningful if they come from the CEO, rather than the general counsel, or someone in the corporate communications department.

4. Concede that people got hurt. This is obviously true in the case of actual death or injury, but it also applies to breaches of trust or other disappointing behavior. Own up to the consequences of your actions.

5. Take responsibility. Now, you might get some pushback from lawyers here, but you can’t expect to have an apology taken seriously unless you stand up and acknowledge that your actions were wrong. Find a legal team that understands the communications imperative and value of what you are trying to do.

6. Express regret, seek forgiveness. This is an apology. You are sorry, you have regrets, you made mistakes—say it any way you like, but at the end of the day, you need to express sorrow and seek forgiveness. And mean it.

7. Vow to take corrective action. Do what you need to do to prevent your misdeeds from being repeated. Fire those who need firing. Fix systems that need fixing. Revamp procedures that need revamping. If the issues involved personal peccadillos, vow to seek professional counseling—and then actually get some.

8. Make it right. Apologizing is an empty exercise in many situations unless you can make an effort to right your wrong. “Oops!” is not a sufficient response. Provide restitution to your customers. Where you have caused financial or property losses, find a way to pay people back. Putting your money where your mouth is should be part of the equation.

9. And vow that the violations won’t be repeated. This requires more than simply a promise. You want to give your audience reason to believe that the bad behavior will not happen again – that you have taken steps to prevent a repeat of whatever triggered the issue in the first place.

10. Be aware of corporate apology fatigue. This makes it all the more imperative that your apology is not contrived. ”Bad apologies drive out good,” says Dov Seidman of LRN, a consultancy that advises on corporate culture. “The mea culpas have kept on coming to the point where they are reaching the level of parody. It is because I mourn the loss of the genuine apology that I propose an apology cease-fire.” His speech on this theme at Davos was picked up by The New York Times, which launched “Apology Watch” on the DealBook website to track this trend and check on who keeps their word. You have been warned.

The good news is that the world is a forgiving place. But to be forgiven, you need to come clean and you need to show true regret. Perhaps that’s tough to swallow, but that’s just the way it is.


Eric Savitz is a former Brunswick Partner.

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