Be Careful About Falling Into The Apology Trap

Be Careful About Falling Into The Apology Trap
It seems like people apologize for everything these days. I was at a gas station the other day where one of the pumps was out of order. A handwritten sign on the pump read, “We are terribly sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused.” Ummm…ok? I just rolled forward to the next pump and filled up. Why the need for such exaggerated prostration? Wouldn’t “Out of Order” have been enough?

A few weeks ago, Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian publicly apologized for disrupted flight schedules in the wake of a massive power and computer failure. That seems appropriate; it was a pretty frustrating experience for Delta passengers. But we hear the same types and tones of apologies for everything from making simple mistakes, to having different opinions, to asking questions in meetings. “I’m sorry” is now so overused as to lose its power.

It’s always a good thing to apologize for hurting someone else, breaking a rule, or doing something obviously wrong. But the power of such apologies is seriously undermined when we say we’re sorry for things beyond our control or responsibility. We’ve seen this referred to as the “Sorry Syndrome” – overusing apologies as a means to avoid confrontations. And as we tell our clients frequently, if you’re in the brand protection business, that’s a dangerous trap to fall into.

If for no other reason than to avoid tying your brand up in unnecessary litigation, it’s a good thing to avoid apologizing as a first response to a crisis. Researchers took on this subject a few years ago[1] and found that in many cases, deciding not to apologize actually left guilty parties feeling better than those who issued an apology. How can that be?

The answer lies in the idea of rationalization. Organizations that are quick to apologize for any perceived offense are failing to carefully evaluate all their rhetorical options. We know, because of William Benoit’s work regarding image repair[2], that in addition to apology strategies (what Benoit refers to as “mortification”), five major messaging options are available to a spokesperson during a crisis. Organizations that have fully vetted their messaging options likely feel smarter and more confident than those who reflexively issue an apology as a first reaction.

When an Apology Makes Sense

Now we shouldn’t take this too far; the apology is a legitimate tool if used correctly and in the right conditions. Consider delivering one if…

  • You’re caught dead to rights. You’re either doing, or have done something wrong and a lot of people already – or are about to – know about it. This means evidence exists you can’t deny.
  • No other parties can be used as a scapegoat. Scapegoating is a time-honored tool and should always be considered as a way to evade responsibility. Do you remember Volkswagen executive Michael Horn? He got grilled by a Congressional panel for about two hours about the automakers’ emissions scandal. Horn acknowledged the matter was “deeply troubling,” but pushed back against accusations that VW had a pervasive culture of corruption, saying it does “not reflect the company that I know.” That’s setup language for scapegoating. And then – as if on cue – he profiled the wrongdoers as rogue German software engineers. He distanced those bad people from the organization by declaring them an exception to, and not reflective of, the company’s values.

If you want a complete catalogue of how the technique has been used throughout time, read Charlie Campbell’s book, Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People. It’s fascinating and full of wonderful examples of scapegoats ranging from Christians to Communists.

  • High ground can be claimed. In ambiguous situations when it’s unclear who is to be blamed, the public tends to reward those who roll up their sleeves to make things right more than those who simply express remorse and do nothing. British Petroleum gets credit for doing this after the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo blowout. Even though a number of subcontractors were later found to have played a role in that disaster, BP got to work stopping the spill, then cleaning it up.
  • The time is right. An apology is most effective when the aggrieved party is ready to accept it. If your company is spilling thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, then take prompt corrective action to stop the wrongdoing. There will be time enough for apologies after the incident is resolved.

Stay in the Present

Consider this scenario: A leak at a manufacturing site releases hazardous chemicals into the environment, harming area wildlife and water supplies and prompting an evacuation of nearby neighbors. Those neighbors don’t need or want an instantaneous apology from a plant manager. They are not ready or willing to listen to how sorry a company spokesperson might be. Instead, the neighbors want to see the company completely focused on solving the problem – which means three actions in parallel: containment, cleanup and causation.

During a crisis situation, spokespeople should stay in the present and focus on providing information to stakeholders along these three lines of activity. When asked by a reporter whether or not the company is going to apologize for the leak, we advise or clients to respond by saying, “Now is not the time. This is a complex and difficult situation, so right now, our priority is to focus on addressing immediate issues and supporting affected people.”

Control with Contrition

When you find yourself ready to issue an apology, be contrite. A well-crafted apology expresses regret and/or penance. Use the moment to make amends and publicly commit to better future performance.

We’re not fans of institutional apologies that sound something like: “We at Altitude Airlines offer our heartfelt apologies for the inconvenience some customers may have experienced during our shutdown.” This is frustrating to see. A hollow statement like that is from no one and to no one. If you’re on the receiving end of that message, you most likely want a refund, reimbursement for hotel expense, replacement of your luggage and belongings, and clarity about your future reservations. In short, you want current, factual, and complete information about what is happening now and what you can expect to happen next.

The Predictive Interviewing Model provides the perfect guide for when to deliver an apology in an interview situation – as early as possible in the interview sequence. The PIM predicts the first question in most interviews will be an open-ended question type, like: “How could this have happened?” An open-ended question-type allows spokespeople to take control of the interview right off the bat and denies a reporter the opportunity to “force” an apology out of you. Use a flag to start a statement that might sound like: “Before we get into the details of what’s happened, let me start by apologizing to our customers, to those who depend on us to deliver day-in and day-out. We appreciate your trust, your loyalty and we never, ever, take your business for granted…” The messaging from that point of departure can focus on corrective actions and even praise for customers and employees doing their best to rectify the situation, rather than on continued expressions of remorse.

I came across a research paper a few years ago that redefined an apology as an “expression of regret for an undesirable circumstance that is clearly outside of one’s control.” If that’s an essential condition for an apology, then the device should rarely be used. That obviously isn’t the case; hollow apologies get thrown around in nearly every news cycle these days, and the public has learned to tune them out.

A better rule of thumb is to be “careFULL” in difficult public communication situations. Choose words carefully, be full of empathy, share in an audience’s frustration about a regrettable situation, and be resolved to making the situation right. That’s much more powerful than apologizing for everything under the sun, including the rain.

Curious to learn more about Image Repair Theory? Download our full whitepaper on the Wounded Warriors Project here.