From customer service experiences to businesses or their figure heads who have lied, cheated or stolen to get ahead, crisis and issues management situations seem to play out daily in our world.
We talk a lot about developing crisis communication plans and how to handle media inquiries or social media conversations when something goes wrong, but one difficult question that seems to come up more often than not is, “doesn’t an apology imply that its our fault?”
It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where saying you’re sorry could have legal implications, but showing compassion and understanding for those affected should always be the first action taken – and often, dare I say it, when you’re not at fault. The best crisis communication plans allow businesses to address the issue at hand, mitigate damage, respond to the media and (hopefully) address the issue moving forward. But failing to apologize in some form implies that you’re focusing solely on the business or brand without regard for the individuals that were harmed or affected. How and when you should apologize will vary on a case-by-case basis (as will advice from your legal team), but the point is acknowledgement.
Brands like Comcast and AT&T are no stranger to dealing with a barrage of angry customers.
Dropped calls, cable outages and unexpected charges on bills are complained about daily via Twitter, and nearly every time the responses start with “I’m sorry.” In these cases, the apology acknowledges the inconvenience, or even just the fact that the customer is frustrated, and lets them know they’ve been heard before actually addressing the issue. Blood pressure tends to drop significantly thanks to those two words: “I’m sorry.”
Apologies can have a similar affect on large-scale issues like BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Lance Armstrong’s doping admission. Or in the latter case, the lack of an apology. Betsy Andreu, the wife of Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu, said it best, “I get asked a lot what he’s done to make amends, and the answer is nothing… I merely wanted to look him in the eyes and he look me in the eyes. That’s it. A show of humanity. After his decade-long tirade on me, I felt he owed me that. I wasn’t asking for a lot.”
An apology itself does not right a wrong, and it definitely doesn’t take the place of a step-by-step plan to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again. Likewise, the apology won’t have an impact in the long run if you don’t take action. But the first step should be acknowledgement that someone was wronged. Then you can work on making it right, and ensuring it doesn’t happen again.
Jim Licko is a Senior Director of Social Media and Digital Strategy at GroundFloor Media and frequently works with GFM’s Rapid Response issues management team to plan for and manage crisis situations.