Communicators need to be careful about reaching for an apology as the default option in the face of controversy.
For years, crisis communications advisors have patted themselves on the back, because they, unlike lawyers, understand the power of an apology. Utter the S word, announce some sort of redemptive measures – new policies, an independent review, maybe even a resignation – and look like you mean it and all would be well.
Lawyers would protest that technically, legally, the client might have a good case, but communicators knew that in the court of public opinion, their arguments simply wouldn’t wash. Optically and ethically the client had messed up and would have to admit it.
A simple sorry gave the journalist the victory they wanted or allowed us to get back round the table with the NGO – so that we could all move on.
Today, issues tend to play out on social channels, where the court of public opinion has been replaced by the vigilante mob. Traditional rules of engagement have been replaced by group dynamics. The crowd cannot be assuaged so easily – they are unaccountable and unappeasable. Sorry won’t draw a line under the story, it will feed it.
“In a recent study, respondents reported experiencing significantly greater exposure to immoral acts and expressed greater moral outrage online vs in person or through traditional media platforms (newspaper, TV, radio, etc.). Meanwhile, other recent research finds that morally “outrageous” content is retweeted, shared, and commented on more frequently than all other material in circulation. And with algorithms tracking what you click on so as to direct you to similar stimuli in the future, political social media consumers are being fed a steady supply of outrage.”
Distortion of facts
In this context, what a company actually did wrong becomes distorted and mea culpas go unnoticed or ignored, as H&M discovered last year, when repeated apologies for a racially insensitive advert didn’t stop the escalation of a celebrity boycott or stores being vandalised.
Apologies only really work when there is someone ready to accept them – but the crowd has no such gatekeeper. As Jon Ronson says in his book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’:
“An apology is supposed to be a communion – a coming together. For someone to make an apology, someone has to be listening. They listen and you speak and there’s an exchange. That’s why we have a thing about accepting apologies.”
Politicians have learned that refusing to apologise can be a successful strategy. Trump’s refusal to back down in the face of media and social media brickbats helped propel him to the White House. In the UK, when Rory Stewart was caught faking selfie videos on Twitter, he admitted it without apology and it became a defining moment in his ascent to cult hero status.
Unrepentant brands have also prospered. Western societies are locked in a culture war and standing up to perceived bullies on ‘the other side’ can deepen a brand’s relationships with its core customers. Nike and fast food chain Chick-fil-A have both shrugged off activist boycotts, their refusal to change course leading to increased sales.
Conversely, apologising can also produce a sense of betrayal among your core audience, who often find themselves in visceral disagreement with the protestors. For example, YouTube recently bowed to pressure from Vox journalist Carlos Maza about the behaviour of YouTuber Stephen Crowder, demonetising his channel even though it had broken no editorial guidelines. It was a measure that failed to placate Maza or his followers and generated a huge backlash from the YouTube community.
Of course, saying sorry can still be an important way to minimise reputational harm, but communicators should ask three questions before reaching for an apology:
- Are you actually sorry? Are you sorry for intrinsic reasons?
Not regretful that you’ve triggered a backlash, but genuinely sorry for the act itself. Did your company breach its own ethical code or expose weaknesses in its standards?
2. Is anyone actually hurt? Are you sorry for the external effects you’ve caused?
Are the complainants upset on behalf of some hypothetical person or as the result of a misunderstanding – or has real harm been done directly?
3. Do your audiences care? Are you sorry because you’ve upset people who really matter to you?
If you were to step outside of the social media swirl and talk to your employees, customers, investors or partners, would they be upset about what the organisation did? This is where having a deep understanding of your audiences matters.
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then an apology is appropriate, lawyers-be-damned.
But if the answer to all three is no, then an apology would not only be inauthentic, it could be counterproductive, providing further ammunition to critics. In these cases, the best way to weather the storm is to let its energy dissipate over time and keep communications open with the people who really matter to your business.
The word “sorry” is still one of the most important in the communicators’ lexicon, but only if you really mean it.
Written by Nick Barron, deputy CEO of MHP Communications
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