The Art of the Public Apology

Whenever I’m watching my toddler-aged nieces, I make sure they mind their manners. They’re great at saying “please” and “thank you”. And even when they have to be reminded, they quickly insert it politely.

But there’s something about having to say “sorry” that makes their whole demeanor change. All of a sudden, they begin to hunch over, drag their feet, and in the lowest and softest voice possible, they say something that can be interpreted as, “I’m sorry”.

Apparently, not much changes for some adults. In the public and private sector, apologizing to the public still seems to be such a difficult task. It’s fun to brag about your organization’s accomplishments, but admitting fault? Not so much.

Corporate Apologies

I’ve been in circumstances where a company apology had to be written; and although every circumstance will be different, the end result is usually better if it adheres to these three guidelines:

  1. Make the apology punctual.
    From the Watergate scandal, we learned that it’s not the crime; it’s the cover up. When you find out about the issue, you need to start trying to rectify the situation. Hoping that the issue will get overlooked or eventually die down will only discredit your organization further down the road when the truth comes to light.
  2. Make the apology genuine.
    We all make mistakes, and people know this. Be clear and specific about why you’re apologizing and mean it. Your public isn’t stupid — sounding a bit callous or pretentious isn’t going to work.
  3. Don’t Make Excuses.
    Benjamin Franklin said, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” And he’s right! Don’t spend time trying to justify what happened. It’s time to ensure the public that you’re making strides to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

If it hasn’t occurred already, a situation is likely to arise where you will have to apologize for your organization in some capacity, but it’s how you handle it that will determine a successful outcome.

Hope Boyd
Written by:
Hope Boyd
Director of Communications, Strategic Government Resources

8 responses

  1. GREAT comments Hope and spot on. Deflecting seems to be gaining ground in our culture as opposed to reflecting. That should not be the case however when the fault is indeed ours.

    1. Thanks, Greg!

      And deflecting is a problem… not only for organizations, but for individuals, too.

  2. You are so right Hope. I know in policing, sincere public apologies go a long way to those we serve. It’s important to show that even though we strive for excellence, we are not perfect. There’s a time and place for it no doubt. Thanks.

    1. I figured you would understand working in the police force, Andy. People make mistakes, but that should also be followed with a genuine apology for those mistakes.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Thanks for sharing this wisdom, Hope.

    Reading it, I am reminded of John C. Maxwell’s saying that it is easier to go from failure to success than from excuses to success.

    1. Wow. I haven’t heard that quote before, Joseph… but I like it because it’s so true! Fess up to it, and people will respect you more.

      Thanks for your input as always!

  4. It was inciteful of you to begin your article with an example of how children do, or don’t, apologize because how adults do, or don’t, apologize is nothing more than a litmus test of emotional maturity. It is difficult for the self-focused (like children) to alologize because they perceive that it is about them. For those that have learned that they are personally an ant in the universe and/or those who see themselves as a part of bigger causes (teams, organizations, projects) then it easier for them to do “what is right” for the bigger cause.

    1. I like your thinking, David… and thanks for commenting.

      Apologizing really does have to do with emotional maturity. If people are mature enough to realize it’s about their company’s ethics, and not personal ego, there would be a lot more apologizing going on!

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