3 causes of botched corporate apologies

Dithering and denial always make the problem worse, yet corporations just can’t seem to help themselves.

They say you only get one shot at making a good first impression. That’s true for corporate apologies, too.

When a company is forced to apologize multiple times for the same incident, it’s already blown it.

Think of this playground scenario: When a rambunctious child knocks another little one over, the parent of the rowdy tot generally intervenes and demands that the child apologize. If the apology comes off as insincere, a parent intent on teaching a lesson might say, “Apologize like you mean it, or we’re going home right now.”

Kids usually recognize the severity of the matter and offer a proper apology. Adult-run corporations, unfortunately, tend to be worse at apologizing than your average 7-year-old.

Why do businesses so frequently mangle mea culpas? Here are three reasons:

1. Lawyers see an apology as an admission of guilt. Attorneys are loath to cop to anything, lest it be used against the apologizer in a court of law. This hesitancy leads to vague non-apologies that frequently cause more outrage, which creates the need to apologize again. This time, with feeling— or we’re leaving the playground right now.

This is why PR people and attorneys should spend more time together. Most business leaders would prefer to swiftly rip off the apology Band-aid the first time around, rather than tugging it slowly and repeatedly, worsening the original wound.

2. Apologies are edited by a committee. Committees rarely produce excellence. Compromise often chips away at the best of both sides, leaving a mediocre middle.

This is true of messaging, positioning, press releases and corporate apologies. Several cycles of revisions can turn a sincere apology into a watered-down statement laden with jargon like “re-accommodate” that no one outside the corporate bubble understands.

3. Leaders get a sheltered view. There’s a philosophy attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that advises smart generals to keep a private nearby to monitor the pulse of the ranks. As leaders grow in responsibility, they tend to surround themselves with yes men, as opposed to people who speak unvarnished truth. That is a recipe for a tone-deaf disaster.

Anytime you have coddled, isolated leaders who want only good news, diverse ideas are filtered out many layers beneath the CEO, so the head honcho winds up with a skewed view of the world. That’s how corporate apologies go awry.

There’s no weakness in providing a genuine apology when you make a mistake. To the contrary, it’s a sign of strength. When you fess up straightaway, customers and investors will probably forgive you and respect your transparency.

Saying you’re sorry hurts, but not nearly as much as having to do it repeatedly.

A version of this post originally appeared on Sword and the Script.


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