by David Kalson on June 13th, 2012 -- filed under Crisis Communications
Consider the apology a company must make because it has actually done some harm to its customers, or its neighbors, or its shareholders, or its employees, or some combination of constituents. The basic business goal of the apology — in a personal letter, full-page ad, phone call, or whatever the format — is to maintain or regain good favor with the victim(s) so the company’s business mission can proceed.
Corporate apologies usually are delivered in the voice of the CEO or some other high-ranking manager. They often boil down to two basic, but very distinct, approaches:
Company A says, “I’m sorry if you feel that we’ve caused you harm.”
Company B says, “I’m sorry we’ve caused you harm.”
The two apologies are worlds apart in effectiveness to the person(s) to whom the apologies are directed. Company A’s apology, though a construct that is obviously intended to stave off lawsuits by not admitting wrongdoing, sticks in the craw. Company B’s apology sticks in the heart – exactly where an apology that’s sincerely delivered belongs.
The “sorry you feel that way” approach transparently sidesteps direct responsibility, and it can do more harm than good, even inflaming a victim’s urge to sue. Company B’s apology takes on full responsibility head on, and for that reason has the potential to help a company that has done wrong to regain its victims’ respect and good graces – and, in the case of customers, their business.
Here’s an excerpt from Toyota’s apology for its product recall back in February 2010:
Dear Toyota Customers:
For more than 50 years, Toyota has provided you with safe, reliable, quality vehicles and first-rate service. I am truly sorry for the concern our recalls have caused, and want you to know we’re doing everything we can – as fast as we can – to make things right. …
President and Chief Operating Officer
The statement is apologizing for “the concern (Toyota’s) recalls have caused,” but glaringly missing is any whiff of contrition for the fact Toyota had to recall its products in the first place.
Contrast the Toyota letter with this excerpt from an apology letter from Jet Blue to its customers:
Dear JetBlue Customers,
We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry. …
(The letter continues with a litany of details on Jet Blue’s mismanagement that left thousands of customers stranded at airports and how the company would be compensating its customers. It ends with the following paragraph).
You deserved better – a lot better – from us last week and we let you down. Nothing is more important than regaining your trust and all of us here hope you will give us the opportunity to once again welcome you onboard and provide you the positive JetBlue Experience you have come to expect from us.
Founder and CEO
These two contrasting excerpts illustrate the basic apology premise: are you taking responsibility or not? If your company truly is at fault, and you’re not taking responsibility, you’ll be digging a deeper hole.
However, effective corporate apologies must contain more than just the basic premise of taking responsibility. Whether it’s communicated publicly or privately, directly to the victims, the effective apology must contain certain additional elements — the 5 Rs of corporate apologies:
Recognize; Responsibility; Regret; Restitution; Repeat.
1. Recognize – Recognize the problem. Explicitly acknowledging that harm was done and then clearly defining the problem first and foremost projects the company’s honesty. But, at least as important, clearly defining the problem also puts borders around the actual offending incident so that negative public relations surrounding the specific incident don’t spill over into other realms of company operations. Recognizing and defining the problem compartmentalizes it.
2. Responsibility – take full responsibility for causing the harm. This is where many corporate apologies fall down, as illustrated by the two examples above. Often it’s the legal team that insists on hedging the apology, as in the Toyota example, in an attempt to minimize or stave off lawsuits. But, many corporate legal counsels have today found agreement with the corporate communications department that an explicit apology can be a big win in the court of public opinion. And a big win in the court of public opinion can be a big help in the court of law. Many corporate lawyers now appreciate that a well-executed apology can lead to advantages in the courtroom and go a long way toward calming the passions for suing in the first place.
Responsibility that’s established in a statement of apology must also include communicating what further investigations you’re conducting to root out the causes of the problem; what corrective actions you’re taking; and, when appropriate, how you will report back on your findings, new procedures, or any other remedies you’re applying.
3. Regret – The notion of regret goes beyond a cold statement that you are responsible. Expressing this emotion in as human a way as possible is crucial to the credibility of the apology. The receivers of the apology must see the person who’s delivering the apology and the company he or she represents as human before they’ll accept an apology as sincere. Expressing regret appropriately requires strong writing skills so the humanity and sincerity of the person signing the apology and the organization are effectively conveyed without raising skepticism.
4. Restitution – Companies have to make it up to their victims in some tangible form, giving substance to the sincere regret that’s been established. Compensation or some other form of restitution has to be commensurate with the harm that was caused.
5. Repetition – The apology should be repeated to the victims in several communications. Depending on the number of people affected, the apology could be made privately or publicly, with follow-ups through personal interactions, phone calls, letters, emails, full-page ads, etc. –the whole smorgasbord of communications channels.
Only after a proper apology is absorbed by audiences can the offending incident be put into the past, the company’s reputation protected and its business continue.
But there is one overarching rule of crisis communications, which is that there are no hard and fast rules about crisis communications. Every situation is different. The course of action taken will require at least as much art as science. However, in most cases when a company is indeed at fault and has caused harm to customers or any other constituents, a well-handled apology to the victims, guided by the 5 Rs, can go a long way to maintaining or gaining back any lost respect, reputation or credibility that the crisis might have caused.
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