When is an apology helpful? When might an apology prove damaging?
A PR pro who is aiming to repair damage to trust and reputation will likely give you different answers to these questions than a lawyer aiming to limit liability. In many, if not most cases, reputation trumps liability. It’s better to sincerely apologize and attempt to move forward in restoring trust in your organization than to stubbornly remain silent. Losing in the court of public opinion can prove more damaging than losing in a court of law. And refusing to apologize may even prove harmful in the courtroom, perhaps leading an unsympathetic judge or jury to pile on punitive damages to what they see as an unrepentant offender.
Keeping this in mind, I offer the following two-question test to help you decide when an apology is in order, courtesy of Eric Zorn in today’s Chicago Tribune. (Zorn brings up the subject because of criticism Republican presidential candidates have directed at President Obama following his apology to the people of Afghanistan for the inadvertent burning of some copies of the Koran. Regardless of your own political views, Zorn’s simple test is helpful to the corporate communicator deciding whether to push back against the lawyers and recommend a public apology be extended.)
- Did you (or those who represent you or answer to you) do or say something that caused discomfort, or worse, to others?
- Would you undo this act if you could?
A “yes” to both of these questions indicates an apology is almost surely in order. Note that the harmful act need not have been deliberate; and if it was indeed unintentional, you clearly should mention that fact in your apology.
Note also that your social responsibility, if not your legal accountability, often extends beyond your own company and its employees—your dealers and even your suppliers may be considered part of your extended organization in the eyes of the public. A socially responsible company holds its dealers and suppliers to the same ethical standards it follows itself.
Finally, Zorn reminds his readers not to offer one of those mealy-mouthed non-apologies that includes caveats like “… if anyone was offended” or is written in a non-accountable passive voice: “mistakes were made.”
And finally I offer these Force for Good posts from the past on the still-pertinent issue of the apology:
When is an emotional apology just too much?