“Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” — Elton John’s famous song title couldn’t be more spot-on than in times of a crisis. All of us know the feeling of resentfully uttering the two simple words, “I’m sorry,” between clenched teeth when it feels like it isn’t our fault (you, too, begrudged reader!).
But at some point, the dreaded apology is the only thing standing between an organization and keeping its reputation intact.
Expressing regret, however, requires special focus. Handled poorly, a good-intentioned apology can blow apart even the best companies. To avoid this pitfall, there are several key considerations organizations should make.
1. Even if it’s not directly your fault, don’t assume your reputation is in the clear.
Occasionally, a crisis might erupt that may not be a direct fault of the organization under fire. Regardless, it is important to acknowledge any wrongdoing and to never point fingers. Instead, take control and be the hero. This was certainly the case for Tylenol following the 1982 poisoning spree.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is believed that someone injected cyanide into Extra Strength Tylenol capsules, resealed the bottles and placed them back on store shelves. The perpetrator was never identified, so the initial blame fell squarely on Tylenol and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson.
Rather than shifting the blame or pointing fingers, Johnson & Johnson instead took control of the situation. The company recalled its products, immediately issued national warnings to the public and even created a hotline for emergencies. Now a model for crisis management, Tylenol not only kept its brand intact, but emerged even stronger, establishing itself as a drug company that is absolutely not willing to risk the public’s safety for the sake of profits.
2. Be sensitive to the situation and to those impacted.
Especially in cases where there is a loss in life, organizations and their spokespeople must choose their words wisely and show compassion and concern.
This was certainly not the case with former BP CEO Tony Hayward when he stated, “I want my life back,” to several news outlets after the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 men. While this was never part of an official apology or statement (rather, an outburst to media), it was immediately met with backlash. The former CEO was viewed as cold and unconcerned for the men who lost their lives and their families.
Hayward apologized shortly after for his remark, stating that he made “a hurtful and thoughtless comment” and that “those words don’t represent how I feel about this tragedy.”
3. Acknowledge the impact your actions had rather than minimize them, no matter how big or small.
Organizations must also acknowledge the impact of the situation; however, sometimes this means acknowledging the public’s perception of the impact instead.
Going back to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill example, there were several missteps BP took in addressing the severity. In an interview with The Guardian, Hayward tried to put into context the nearly 400,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, stating “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” A few days later, he reportedly told Britain’s Sky News, “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to have been very, very modest.”
Perhaps. But this remark only fueled an even bigger fire and was perceived as BP trying to minimize the environmental damage or dismiss it altogether.
4. Don’t forget to say what you plan to do next.
Simply hearing the words “I’m sorry” can help keep an organization’s reputation intact, but people also want to know how an organization plans to remedy the situation and prevent it from happening again. This is why organizations must outline next steps, offering peace of mind to the public that real action is taking place. But you must follow through with it.
Starbucks is a great example of this. In May of 2018, the coffeehouse giant closed more than 8,000 stores to hold racial bias training for its employees. This decision came after two men in a Philadelphia store were arrested when the store manager called the police as the men waited for a business associate without ordering anything. The video of their arrest went viral, resulting in protests.
Starbucks acted quickly, even taking an estimated $12 million loss in profit for closing its doors for just a few hours. While costly, this decision likely paid off.
During and even after a crisis, “sorry” can certainly be the hardest word to say — but it’s critical. Even if the fault is technically someone else’s, failing to acknowledge the issue can cause more damage and threaten your organization’s reputation. By observing both the lessons learned and the best practices of others, expressing regret can be accomplished in a responsible way while preventing further reputational damage.