For public figures and organizations, no other phrase could be more difficult or more complicated to say. It means something went wrong or someone was hurt (or worse).
Here are the three necessary ingredients for delivering an effective apology:
- Honesty: Acknowledge completely what went wrong.
Popstar Ariana Grande’s first attempt at an apology is a perfect example of what not to do. Following the disclosure of a Fourth of July video in which she displayed rude and disgusting behavior in a local doughnut shop, the popstar chose to focus her first apology on her “I hate America. I hate Americans” statements and tried to unconvincingly explain that her comments were directed at her disgust with childhood obesity in the United States.
Her failure to acknowledge the other elements of her behavior during “Doughnutgate” resulted in immediate public and media backlash that kept the story in the news for nearly a week and forced the popstar to address (and re-apologize) for the childish prank several times.
In contrast, a few years ago, I worked with a manufacturer of specialized batteries that discovered that under a certain situation their products were likely to fail. By being proactive in communicating the weakness in the battery design and a solution for avoiding the situation, the company avoided being forced to do a major product recall and was able to maintain its reputation as a preferred and trusted vendor.
The first step to an apology that rings true is to openly and factually acknowledge what went wrong. Whether the circumstances are preventable, accidental or deliberate, an open acknowledgement of what went wrong demonstrates honesty and empathy for those affected by your actions.
- Timeliness: Apologize as soon as possible.
Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson demonstrated how a quick and complete apology can actually end up creating positive results. In June, the actor made an immediate U-turn after he accidentally sideswiped a parked vehicle. After finding the vehicle owner, Johnson delivered an immediate apology and promised to pay for the damages. Johnson’s candid, quick and sincere apology not only resulted in the vehicle owner refusing compensation but reinforced his image as an all-around stand-up guy.
Following the disclosure of a New York-consumer agency investigation that found multiple incidents of overpricing, Whole Foods issued a defensive written statement accusing the agency of “overreaching” in its investigation. Public reaction included the company’s stock price dropping to near yearly lows and consumers calling for a boycott of the company stores. Less than a week later, co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb released a video on YouTube to apologize “straight up” for the issue. By personally admitting that the company was in the wrong and quickly apologizing for it, Whole Foods leadership took the “controversy” out of the story and reinforced Whole Foods brand image as a company where “values matter.” The result: news coverage of the issue ceased and the stock price has seen a steady rebound and increase since the co-CEOs public apology.
- Genuine Action: Outline how you’re going to make amends – and follow through.
I once consulted for a large regional hospital that discovered not one but three problems involving sexual misconduct in the same week. While one was sure to become public (an arrest involving criminal behavior); the other two incidents did not involve any arrests but had the potential to put into question the hospital’s security and hiring practices. In addition to acknowledging all of the events that had occurred and the actions the hospital had taken to reach out to potentially affected parties, the CEO also communicated the proactive measures being taken by the hospital to avoid problems in the future.
The result was that instead of a front page headline story reading “Sexual Scandals Rock Local Hospital,” the actual story was headlined “Hospital Installs New Security Measures” and ran on page 11 of the local daily newspaper.
More importantly, by following through on the preventive measures they outlined during their press conference, the hospital and its leadership retained their positive standing in the local community.
When a crisis hits, the public will often judge you or your organization not by what has happened but by the actions that follow. When you find that you or your organization is on the wrong or hurting end of an issue or event, an apology that is delivered with honesty, timeliness and genuine action can reinforce your integrity and reduce the likelihood of lasting material damage to your brand.
— E.E. Wang, firstname.lastname@example.org