Crisis Management 101: How To Apologize Appropriately

Crisis Management 101: How To Apologize Appropriately

Lisa Lochridge head shotFor 1960s country music star Brenda Lee, saying “I’m Sorry” meant winning a Grammy and having the legendary song inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.


For the rest of us, an apology isn’t nearly as pleasant.

But saying “I’m sorry” to the public is an important element of crisis communication — something companies should think about and plan for (and then hope they never have to do it).

As with any business process or strategy, there are best practices when it comes to expressing regret to stakeholders, consumers, or customers:

  • Your crisis communication plan should include strategic questions to help guide you in deciding if, when, and how to issue an apology. Will saying “we apologize” help you tamp down criticism? Will you be making a mountain out of a molehill? Will you be legitimizing a critic or competitor? Those are factors to consider and discuss internally.
  • Savvy organizations understand it might be harmful to avoid an apology. Staying silent in today’s world of social media and rapid-fire communication invites critics to fill the void.
  • Internal buy-in is important. Be sure your leadership team is aligned on the approach and substance of a statement of apology.

Just as in personal relationships, in the corporate world, there are right and wrong ways to say you’re sorry. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP CEO Tony Hayward spoke with a reporter about the tragedy. If you watch the video clip, you’ll see he wasn’t doing too badly with the interview. But then he uttered his now-famous lines: “I’m sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

Dr. Paul Oestreicher, Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs at New York’s Yeshiva University, has conducted research on public apologies. A scientist and public relations expert, Oestreicher has developed a new model for developing and measuring the effectiveness of apologies.

Oestreicher points out that the University of Michigan medical program has incorporated a philosophy to counter the defend-and-deny practice common among medical practitioners. The result so far? Attorneys’ fees dropped from $3 million to $1 million a year, and malpractice lawsuits and notices of intent to sue have fallen.

In “Why do People Sue Doctors? A Study of Patients and Relatives,” researchers found when asked what could have been done to avert a medical malpractice lawsuit, 37% of respondents said an explanation and apology would have made the difference. In fact, dozens of states have adopted “apology laws,” which make a doctor’s expression of regret inadmissible to prove negligence.

Oestreicher and his colleague Heena Chavda developed “The 6 As of Apology” to guide development of a public statement of apology.

  1. Acknowledging something has happened: Squarely concede what occurred to necessitate an apology. Don’t dance around the details.
  2. Having an authentic expression of regret: If you say you’re sorry, mean it. People will be able to tell whether you’re sincere; and if you’re not, there will be backlash. Ben Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
  3. Using appropriate tone and language: Match what you say and how you say it to the level of the situation’s gravity.
  4. Choosing an acceptable venue: “Location determines who and how many will receive the message, and it will help set the tone of the apology,” Oestreicher says.
  5. Acting in the right timeframe: Timing is everything. If you wait too long, you can miss the opportunity to be effective.
  6. Announcing next steps: Say what your company is doing to reduce the chance of something similar recurring. Avoid saying it will “never happen again,” however. Those can be famous last words.

Issuing an apology during a crisis situation may not be easy. But in the long run, it can make a significant difference in how your company’s brand and reputation weather a storm.