Sorry? Why we need an Apology Act and how communicators can play their part

This article first appeared in the November 2019 edition of Influence

When it comes to acting with compassion when things go wrong businesses seem either unwilling or unable to do the right thing. At a recent joint event hosted by the CIPR Greater London and Corporate and Financial Groups a panel representing industry, lawyers and the Apology Clause campaign discussed these issues and what it means for communicators who find themselves at the sharp end of helping protect organisational reputation.

By Nick Wright, co-founder of Apology Clause,

When Thomas Cook took nine years to apologise following the death of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning on one of its holidays, it was criticised for its ‘gruesomely legalistic stance’.

When Thomson Airways detained Faizah Shaheen in 2017 returning from her honeymoon for reading a book about Syria on the flight, it took them a year to issue a ‘non-apology’: ‘We’re sorry if Ms Shaheen remains unhappy with how she feels she was treated.’

And why did it take United Airlines three goes to say sorry when a passenger was forcibly removed from one of its flights in 2018 as a result of its overbooking policy?

The role advisers play is important. Quite often organisations will be told not to apologise for fear of admitting liability, being sued or facing rising insurance premiums. Professional fear trumps moral obligation.

Yet apologies are important, not just for the business. They make a real difference to people who have suffered. They help victims recover and move on with their lives.

In reality the law is quite clear. The Compensation Act 2006 states that ‘an apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty’. Or in other words it’s OK to behave with humanity and decency without getting into trouble for it.

However, knowledge of this clause is low and those who are aware are reluctant to be used as test cases in a court of law.

Greater awareness of the clause is a good starting point as is increased use by lawyers and better understanding by insurers. But it would not take much for a well-meaning government to clarify what the Apology Clause means in practice, or to legislate with a new Apology Act. After all Scotland did exactly that with the recent Apologies (Scotland) Act in 2016.

It would be good for business, good for those who have suffered and it would be very good politically as it would cost the Treasury nothing.

And it would ensure that sorry needn’t be the hardest word.

Nick Wright is a communications consultant and co-founder of the Apology Clause campaign. This campaign was set up to make it easier for businesses to behave with compassion when things go wrong and so help victims have better recoveries.

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