Meaningful apologies matter

CorpComms feature (Aug 18)This article first appeared in the August 2018 edition of CorpComms Magazine

The Apology Clause campaign (www.apologyclause.com) aims to make it easier for businesses to behave with compassion when things go wrong, and so to help victims have better recoveries.

Here we look at what is behind the campaign, and why it is important for professional communicators charged with protecting corporate reputation.

We live in a sorry state.  That is to say, these days the news is full of people saying sorry for things they have said and done.  Often it doesn’t ring true.  Did they really say sorry?  Did they even mean it?  What will change?

The apology is fast becoming a rhetorical device to try and get beyond an awkward moment.

“Sorry” is used too often when it shouldn’t be, and not enough when it should.

Professor Roy Lewicki, of Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, argues that apologies should have six elements:

1. expression of regret

2. explanation of what went wrong

3. acknowledgment of responsibility

4. declaration of repentance

5. offer of repair

6. request for forgiveness.

Instead, too frequently, we are treated to the “non-apology”.  Regret for how people feel, not what went wrong, and no reference to what is being done to stop the same thing happening again.

Well-made apologies are so rare that they make headlines.  KFC’s heartfelt “FCK” advert began simply “We’re sorry”.  Its explanation for the failure of its supply chain was clear, unequivocal and humorous.  It worked.  People felt better about the brand after the apology than they did before.

It’s such a shame that businesses don’t behave like this more frequently.

When something has gone wrong, they are often ready to say sorry.  But their professional advisors, whether lawyers or insurers, advise against it.  They fear that if they apologise it will open them to legal action and untold cost.

Yet the law is clear.  The Compensation Act 2006 states: “an apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty”.

The problem is that this is a little-known piece of law, with little precedent to define it.  Lawyers are either unaware of it or they shy away from testing it.

That’s why  we set up the Apology Clause campaign.  To push for two things:

  1. To raise awareness and use of the law as it stands, to build case law
  2. To push for new legislation to provide even greater clarity.

This is important because if organisations could apologise when they see a moral obligation it would make a huge difference to how they protect their reputation in a crisis.  A well-made apology can show that they are responsible citizens and that they are human.

What is more, apologies are also crucial when people have suffered.  Apologies help people recover and move on.  A simple apology can make the difference between a victim being able to get over a trauma, or being frozen in the very moment of it for the rest of their lives.

Many communications professionals will be members of crisis management teams.  Often their advice to behave as openly and humanly as possible is overruled by legal caution.

But there is scope to push back on this, to use the Compensation Act 2006 to get executives and lawyers to think differently.  To behave with compassion.

“Sorry” makes a difference to people that have suffered, and good corporate reputations can hang on that.

Please visit apologyclause.com to find out more and to support the campaign, whether helping make the case to the legal profession or encouraging politicians to come on board.

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