When Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

Elton John hit the nail on the head when he melodiously crooned these words – and in 2019, plenty of local brands are really struggling with doing just that. The simple act of saying “sorry” doesn’t seem to be so simple. 

While there have been plenty of bad examples of half-hearted apologies muttered in the past, one only needs to look at the embarrassingly recent Brownface saga in Singapore to know that we still have a long way to go in terms of saying sorry and actually meaning it. 

As usual, not all apologies were created equal. Some are met with plenty of derision and eye-rolling. 

A brand in crisis control mode is doing itself no favours by putting out a bad apology – all it does is further damage its reputation for a long time to come. After all, brand goodwill takes years to build and mere moments to destroy. 

So, in this age of cynical, hawk-eyed audiences who are quick to call out even the smallest instances of corporate shortsightedness, how can brands apologise and actually mean it?

Assemble the Right Team 

Multiple stakeholders need to play a part in crafting a heartfelt apology; brands cannot just rely on their PR teams. While the exact make-up of the team will probably differ depending on the brand and the issue, here are the players that need to be involved:

Senior Management: When a brand is being steamrolled by a crisis situation, there’s bound to be a lot of internal buck-passing, scapegoating and finger-pointing. As a communications professional, you need to borrow some clout from your senior managers to ensure people stay focused on responding quickly and accurately. You also need to quickly make decisions on what corrective actions the brand should take, and whip up a blueprint for how to move forward. 

Operational Team: This should be someone who directly oversees or was a part of the incident. If there is a need to recap what happened, they need to be able to talk about it to speed up the process of responding. 

Legal: This is a tough one. Legal teams generally err on the side of caution and try to ensure brands do not implicate themselves – however, this needs to be tempered with public perception. If a debate about words erupts between the communications and legal teams, it’s important all players keep in mind that everyone is on the same side, and that they must work towards the same long-term goal. 

Timing and People 

Once the A-Team has been assembled, it’s time to get cracking on the actual response. One important thing to remember is that while people associate public apologies with press statements, the general public is not the brand’s only stakeholder. Deciding the order in which you reach out to different groups is important, as you don’t want to be accused of pandering to a certain audience, or seem too furtive. 

For instance, let’s say that your company’s latest blender model has been blowing up (and not in a good way, but in the literal sense). Your first outreach needs to be to the consumers whose safety and well-being were compromised, followed by your employees and distributors, and then media and rest of the public. If those most affected were to read about the apology in the newspapers first, it is going to come across as disingenuous. Similarly, if your employees get to know about the mishap only after extensively scrolling through their social media feeds – it’s safe to say that there will be very little trust left between staff and senior management.

No ‘Ifs’

Think of the last time you had a fight with a significant other. Isn’t it absolutely infuriating when instead of acknowledging your feelings, they say something callous like “Well, I’m sorry IF you were hurt”? If you can’t relate to that feeling, you’re either chronically single and have our sympathies, or your communication skills are on point and you have our admiration. 

By inserting ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ into your apology, you are moving the fault onto the victims and making a big show of not really being all that genuine about it. Let’s look at an excerpt from the last apology by Havas in regards to the Brownface saga: “Our multicultural society defines us as a nation, and we regret if anyone has been offended by the campaign.”

By having that qualifier, they avoid acknowledging that they absolutely did offend people. What’s worse, they seem to imply that if people were offended, it was partly their fault for being so overly sensitive and not thick-skinned enough.

If that’s still not quite clear, imagine getting hit by a van, only to have the driver come out and say “Our van defines us as a logistics supplier, and we regret if you were hurt by our driving.” Sounds unacceptable, right? 

Instead of burying their heads in the sand and pretending as though the crisis was nothing more than a midsummer night’s fever dream, companies should acknowledge the reality of the situation and show that they’ve been listening – actually listening – to public discontent. If you’ve hit someone with your metaphorical bad driving, all you have to do is say “we are sorry we hurt you, we made a mistake, and we will strive to ensure that such an oversight will never occur again,” and mean it. It’s honestly that simple. 

So… what now? 

Once you have acknowledged your audience’s feelings, their next question will probably be along the lines of “what now?” And yes, this is pretty daunting for most brands. 

When NUS was dealing with the fallout from their mishandling of a sexual harassment case, they tried to address the demand for change by going as far as calling for a town hall where a speaker panel consisting of university professors and officials attempted to address various student grievances. Unfortunately, the town hall was widely panned and students accused the administration of doing the bare minimum to address critical issues. 

The main takeaway from this example is that a proper apology must go hand-in-hand with a tangible plan to bring about real change. Building an effective long-term plan may feel like an uphill struggle, especially when you are under immense pressure to respond to a horrible situation in the best way possible. 

However, to further prevent the dissolution of public faith in your brand, you need to spell out exactly how you and your team are committed to addressing the offensive incident in question and ensuring it will never happen again. It can be tempting to lean on the crutch of vague language when making promises to the public, but now that people are highly attuned to corporatespeak and (pardon our French) they can smell bullsh*t a mile away. 

Ultimately, the purpose of an apology should be to set the record straight and make things right. While people may seem at times a hardened, sceptical lot, you’d be surprised by the general population’s capacity to forgive and move on… but only if brands are willing to eat a bit of humble pie.

This blog was originally published by Mumbrella Asia

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