Public relations convention suggests you should always apologise in a crisis. But has the rise of social media helped blur the issue of when an apology really is the right answer?
With apologies these days done so often – and regularly done so badly – the power of the apology has been diminished and the public are increasingly cynical about any carefully stage-managed mea culpa. As American commentator Rob Jones recently asked: “Has the public apology lost its power? Are we seeing the social economics at work by which the apology has become commoditized and thus devalued?”
This problem has two aspects. Firstly, that corporations, celebrities and politicians sometimes rush to apologise for even the most trivial perceived misdeed, amplified through social media. Secondly, that some of the language used has stripped away any real contrition. Take for example NBC news anchor Brian Williams who apologised that he had “misremembered” a non-existent brush with death in a helicopter in Iraq. It was hardly a surprise that #brianwilliamsmisremembers trended as a meme with a stream of embarrassing parodies. Or consider the American clothing company who issued a grovelling apology after online criticism of a T-shirt intended to honour US marines at Iwo Jima.
At a more serious level, has the time come to reconsider the orthodoxy of the invariable need to apologise in a crisis? In a provocative piece in Fortune, columnist Brett Arends suggested that when it comes to a PR crisis, saying sorry may sometimes have no beneficial effect and serves only to give critics more power to attack. He cited examples of individuals who apologised in the face of a “social media storm” and still lost their jobs anyway. While others, who had supposedly outraged the Twitterverse, held firm and the storm blew over.
However, refusing to apologise on rigid legal advice can also lead to reputational disaster. The British tour operator Thomas Cook initially refused to apologise for the deaths of two young children on a family holiday in Corfu, booked through the company. The cause was carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler nearby, and a UK coroner’s verdict released in May concluded that the tour operator had breached its duty of care.
The Economist reports that Thomas Cook steadfastly held to its line that, while it sympathised with the family’s loss, it had nothing to apologise for. After it emerged that the tour company received a reported £3.5 million in compensation from the hotel owners after the initial tragedy, they faced a barrage of criticism and eventually decided to donate £1.5m of the settlement, not to the family but to an international children’s charity. While we can only presume the corporate lawyers thought this was a satisfactory outcome, the reputational damage was very real.
So what is the right answer, considering the spectrum from celebrities and politicians apologising for the trivial right through to big corporations refusing to apologise for what is undoubtedly serious. We don’t for a moment disagree that if you are in a completely untenable position, you need to apologise, and you need to do it promptly and genuinely. But as Brett Arends concluded, such unambiguous situations may be less common that we often suppose.