Paul Nixey and Kylie McMullan: When a company says it's sorry, it better mean it

Two Vancouver public relations experts explain what gets in the way of a genuine mea culpa

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      By Paul Nixey and Kylie McMullan

      Is it too late now to say sorry? 

      Welcome to the era of the apology. 

      With social media and video cameras in everyone’s pockets, bad behaviour is circulated more quickly than ever before. Organizations should consider themselves one tweet away from a crisis and plan accordingly. The YouTube influencer apology is practically a meme; it’s been done so many times it’s become formulamic for its front facing, close shot, and long, rambling apology speeches.

      From social media influencers apologizing in Youtube videos, celebrity apology tours, and brands’ apology statements on Instagram, we’ve heard every conceivable variation of “I’m sorry.” You can even get an evaluation of what makes a good apology from the website SorryWatch, which evaluates public apologies and provides feedback. 


      So why is it still so rare to get a true, genuine mea culpa? 

      There are many factors at play. Sometimes legal departments are worried about opening up organizations to liability if the apology admits any kind of wrongdoing. Sometimes the issue is complicated; organizations might feel that if they could just explain all the nuances people would understand and see their side of it. 

      In the PR world, we say if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

      People don’t remember the crime. They remember the cover-up. 

      Fess up for the mess up and don’t try to explain or make excuses. The more emotionally charged the issue is, the more important it is to show that you understand and that you care—and here’s the thing: you have to care.

      While apologies should be timely, they should also be well thought out. Anyone who’s rambled an apology that just made things worse can probably relate (public relations includes the word relations for a reason: think of your own relationships and how you have apologized or been apologized to and what resonated). You need to be precise in what happened, what went wrong, why you’re apologizing, and how you will fix it. 

      And then you have to actually fix it.

      If you get the first apology wrong people will be less interested in hearing your next one. This happened with United Airlines when they were getting heat for removing a passenger from a plane in a less-than customer friendly way. Eventually they got the tone and wording right in their apology but it took them several attempts, lessening the credibility.

      So, what makes a good apology? It’s important while saying sorry that the apology happens quickly, is sincere, and shows how the organization plans to change and grow. 

      Don’t be defensive, and get the lawyers out of the room. 

      Organizations burn credibility when the apology only comes out after there is public pressure and if the apology doesn’t apologize. Apologies shouldn’t include finger pointing or deflecting and they definitely shouldn’t be hostile. Knix was criticized for its defensiveness when dealing with a Facebook ad that many believed was in poor taste.

      The company originally released a sincere apology from the CEO. However, the next day the CEO took a more defensive tone when she posted on her own Instagram stories how frustrated she was that the media was paying so much attention to the mistake.

      Most importantly, apologies should be about the person or group you’re apologizing to, and not about you. Too many apologies are watered down by focusing on how the incident has affected the brand or person giving the apology. 

      The gold standard of the Canadian crisis apology is Michael McCain, of Maple Leaf Foods, apology after Listeria monocytogenes was found in some of its products. It was direct, heartfelt, and took accountability. The apology was also given by the CEO, on camera, which showed how seriously the company was taking the issue. On the first-year anniversary after the incident the company also took out full page ads with a letter from McCain to consumers promising to never forget. 

      In the end, like in most relationships, people don’t remember the words you said, but they certainly remember how you made them feel. 

      Kylie McMullan is a communications strategy expert and the coauthor of Canadian PR for the Real World. Paul Nixey is a public affairs strategist who specializes in business, sport, media, and crisis communications. Their views are their own—but you can borrow them if you like.