How and when should organisations apologise?

The New York Times has a fun little video today about who and who has not said sorry during 2017. You’re no one these days, it seems unless you’ve expressed regret. As media trainers, crisis management consultants and communications advisors we’ve helped many people and organisations to express regret.

We’ve also watched many others mess it up. And do you know what? Nothing makes us laugh more than someone getting something so simple – and so important – as an apology so terribly wrong.


Justin Trudeau: the right way to say sorry

As well as those mentioned in the title of the New York Times film “Weinstein: No. Pepsi: Yes. The Year in Apologies” it has references to apologies by governments, companies and individuals. For example, the Canadian government in the form of Justin Trudeau apologised for years of discrimination against the LGBT community in Canada.

Scotland says sorry

The Scottish government offered its apologies to gay men who’d been imprisoned for their sexuality in the past.

Then there were corporate apologies and some wonderful “What were they thinking of?” gaffes where marketing departments have somehow got it so horribly wrong. Pepsi apologised, the New York Times film reminds us, for a campaign that many felt trivialised black lives matter movement when Kendall Jenner offered a national guard a can of soda. Racial discrimination, hatred, violence in the streets – just take a sip of this and it’ll all go away. There’s also a Dove ad where a black woman, apparently to her relief, becomes white.

The film mentions the apology by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick after footage was published of him arguing with…an Uber driver of all people while WHO Lena Dunham apologised earlier this year for defending a friend accused of sexual harassment.

Harvey Weinstein doesn’t say sorry

Finally, the film notes that Harvey Weinstein has not apologised for the accusations made against him.

Just today, UCL has been forced to apologise after a tweet to students asking if they were dreaming of a “white campus,” prompted a furious backlash by many of those students.

“We chose our words very poorly yesterday when thinking of this song,” explained the university, referring to the Bill Crosby classic. “We’re sorry and we’ll choose our words more carefully in the future.”

Also, today, Chris Sier, chairman of the institutional disclosure working group of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) apologised to Chris Cummings, chief executive of the Investment Association and to Andrew Bailey, head of the FCA, after an interview in The Times on Monday in which he accused the financial services sector of being “arrogant and complacent”. Meanwhile, the former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has apologised to her successor for the effect of her appearance on I’m a Celebrity…

What’s the difference between apologising and sympathising?

What’s the difference between apologising for action and sympathising, is a question that we frequenty hear during our media skills training courses.  Legally, apologising does not necessarily mean that you’re accepting legal responsibility. However, in the court of public opinion, it can imply that you’re accepting the blame. Either way, sympathising is always a good way of sounding compassionate and taking the sting out of a difficult situation. “I’m sorry that this has happened,” or “This is such a difficult situation,” at least sounds honest and human.

For organisations and for individuals if, when and how to say sorry is difficult – but very often essential for their brand image and ultimately their economic wellbeing. With the increase in shareholder activism boards of companies that handle a crisis badly and fail to issue an apology correctly can find themselves in big trouble. The share price of United Airlines fell by 6.3  after film of the rough ejection of one of its passengers, Dr David Dao, from a flight went viral.

Crisis management history is littered with examples of people and organisations who haven’t said sorry when they should have done or who have apologised badly. So, here’s some advice on how to handle an apology or a statement of sympathy.

Say sorry and get it right: how companies should apologise

1. Do it quickly. The New York Times video makes reference to the fact that it took several days for United Airlines to apologise for the way in which it treated Dr Dao. During this time outrage grew and social media alongside conventional media buzzed with criticism and attacks as the airline said nothing and then issued a series of confusing comments before finally doing the decent thing. You can always sympathise with someone’s suffering and inconvenience even before you know the details.

2. Do it in person.  Written statements are easy and safe, we know. The New York Times refers to a statement by Matt Lauer, the king of US breakfast television, in response to allegations of sexual impropriety. But the problem with this format is that it looks cold, remote, defensive and inhuman. Words on a screen don’t have the same impact and nuance as well as the human element of a comment by a real person.

You might remember the case of the Thomas Cook CEO who apologised by reading from an autocue. It’s leaden, stilted and very unconvincing.  Saying the words, especially in an interview takes guts and it has its risks but it’s so much more effective.

3. Use natural language. UCL did it well here. References to “falling short of our excellent standards” or “failing in our mission to surprise and delight our customers” or “our customer interactions here were not as we’d have hoped,” don’t just sound insincere, they sound bizarre. If you’ve screwed up say so. If you’re sorry use that simple but very powerful word.

 By the way, avoid a “fulsome apology.” The word might sound as if it’s related to “full,” in the sense of complete but actually it means “complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree,” in others the opposite of what you want to convey.

4. Do it without reservation. “I categorically, unequivocally and wholeheartedly apologise,” said Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the subject of the way that gay men had been treated in Scotland. You can’t misinterpret that, can you? I once worked with a client who was going to face Anne Robinson on the Watchdog programme. We agreed that he would apologise completely and unreservedly, thereby shooting her fox and giving her nowhere else to go with the story. Somehow, after our media training session but before he went on the programme a helpful colleague suggested that he add the word “feel,” as in: “I’m sorry that some of our customers feel that they’ve been badly treated.” It was a gift to Robinson and she savaged him for it.

Leave it at that and move on. As the New York Times reports comedian Cathy Griffin apologised for a gag in which she was seen holding the severed head of President Donald Trump. However, she then told a TV news programme “I’m no longer sorry. The whole outrage was a BS.” So, why did she apologise then? Apologising quickly and unreservedly allows you to move on. Then, following a crisis or embarrassment you need to carefully start creating good news stories that can push the embarrassing incident down the news agenda and the Google page rankings.

2017 might well be the year of the apology but as we discuss in our media training courses, saying sorry properly makes sense.


Posted by Simon Brooke on at

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