Is it too late now to say sorry?

Senior Account Director Louise Harris explores the shifting role of apologies in crisis communications 

“Never apologise, never explain”. An old saying that’s oft-quoted in jest, and all too often implemented by inexperienced brands or communicators in the wake of a crisis.

Whether it’s protestors outside your HQ, a barrage of complaints via social media, an endless stream of media enquiries or all of the above; when crises hit they hit hard. For the uninitiated, or the ill-prepared, a siege mentality can set in leading to some fundamental missteps and mistakes.

Two common examples: first, the complete lockdown of external communications (“XYZ was unavailable for comment at the time of print”) and second, the hurried distribution of bold statements refuting allegations (which later need to be retracted as more facts emerge) and the use of inexperienced or poorly-briefed spokespeople.

There isn’t a one size fits all approach to crisis management, however, experienced communicators have at their disposal a number of tools, tactics and strategies which can help shift the balance of a crisis from an all-out threat, to an opportunity to re-engage stakeholders and demonstrate integrity and professionalism.

Time is of the essence when responding to a crisis and candour is key. If you’ve not already invested time and effort into setting up effective systems to monitor for potential issues, please stop reading and do so now. Being able to quickly establish the parameters of the issue, the interested parties and the relevant operational information can mean the difference between stopping a story in its tracks and watching the news agenda blossom in a way which risks derailing your reputation.

As you gather together this information and establish the facts, aside from specific instances involving litigation where contempt of court issues may legally prevent you from commenting, the holding statement should be considered your friend.

Effective holding statements demonstrate to your stakeholders that you are live to an issue, or their concerns, and should be used as a communication scene-setter for any responses that follow.

Consider your strategy at the outset. In your holding statement, should you adopt a bold, unequivocal stance – rejecting allegations of wrong doing as quickly as they’re made (suited only to crises where there is no risk to, or loss of, human life and where evidence to counter the allegations is readily accessible and robust)? Should you ask for patience while you gather the necessary information or launch an enquiry? And the question which often causes operational strife – should you apologise?

reputation-public-apologyThe decision of whether or not to include an apology of some form is usually tied to concerns about whether it construes an admission of guilt or liability. But are apologies inherently linked to culpability?

Increasingly engaged and empowered stakeholders are becoming more responsive to brands who demonstrate integrity and action in the face of crises. Aside from cases involving loss of life or wilful negligence, in the early stages stakeholders are less preoccupied with how the crisis happened (that comes later) and are more concerned with what parties linked to it are doing to mitigate its effects, and prevent repeats.

In this context, a holding statement with an apology need not be an admission of guilt or wrongdoing, but an
example of a brand stepping up to address a situation and acknowledging that however, or why ever it occurred, it has had a negative impact on stakeholders it values.

And in instances where it can quickly be established that your brand is at fault? Waiting until the last possible moment to admit that, and apologise, can cause irreparable damage by robbing any later apology of its perceived sincerity and weight – becoming what has been known as a “non-apology apology” or “nonpology”.

An appropriately framed apology, issued at an early stage can be the first step towards restoring trust in your brand. Taking ownership of an issue outright, and your relationship to it, also means taking advantage of shaping what happens next.

After failing a drugs test in March 2016, Maria Sharapova proactively called a press conference, before the anti-doping agency responsible for the testing could announce the result. Doing so allowed her to shape the news agenda that followed and establish that, while she had tested positive for an illegal substance, it had only been banned eight weeks before a fact of which she claimed to be unaware. Combining an apology, with an explanation, Ms Sharapova set out her stall as someone willing to pay appropriate penance for her mistake, and laying the foundations for a return to international tennis with her reputation largely intact. Compare that to the reputation of cyclist Lance Armstrong who, following years of denying allegations of substance misuse, even now refuses to make a full apology for doping during his career.

So let’s revise our thinking: sometimes, you should and must apologise, and of course you should always endeavour to explain. Show concern for your stakeholders’ concerns in this way and be rewarded with increased trust. Fail to take responsibility at your own risk; sorry needn’t always be the hardest word.


Freshwater offers a range of specialist services including reputation and crisis management and bespoke communications training to bring your team together.


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Impact Report 2017

Impact report 2017