Sorry seems to be the hardest word Article icon

Sorry Saying sorry after a crisis can be difficult but it can also start the healing process

When toy company Mattel last year apologised for the recall of millions of made-in-China toys, what should have calmed the waters in fact caused consternation and anger. The problem was that the apology, made by Thomas Debrowski, Mattel's executive vice president for worldwide operations, seemed to differ in China to that made in the America or Europe.

Mattel said that it was simply apologising for the recall of millions of toys, and that it was doing all it could to prevent further problems. The Chinese press, however, seemed to hear the apology differently, saying Debrowski had personally apologised for the recall of the toys which was due to design flaws committed by Mattel. To a US audience, and to some in Congress, it seemed that Mattel had been pressurised by the Chinese government into unnecessarily accepting the entirety of the blame.

‘Mattel is a good example of an apology that has gone wrong,' says Alastair Eperon, founder of Eperon Consulting, which specialises in reputation management. ‘You just can't afford to appear to say different things in different parts of the world. You've got to be consistent' In contrast, Eperon views the BA/BAA apology over the recent Terminal 5 fiasco [when almost 300 flights were cancelled in its first five days of operation] as far more effective. ‘With Terminal 5 - there was a swift apology combined with a commitment to act. What was promised was then delivered on time.'

Joanna Trezise, a corporate communications consultant at HeadLand, agrees. ‘The Terminal 5 apology came across as very sincere. There was no finger pointing and the public was regularly updated with information,' she says. ‘Not only that but the communication continued so that even now they are reminding us that the problems are fixed and it's working.'

Whether ultimately successful or not, both of the above examples highlight an increasing trend among companies to publicly apologise. ‘You have such immediacy of the press these days,' says Clare Grayson, partner at law firm Nabarro. ‘Companies are so much more in the spotlight; there is a real pressure to respond immediately and publicly to a crisis.'

Eperon also thinks companies have seen the potential benefits of the public apology. ‘Communication advisers have spotted the success of politicians in saying sorry and they have transposed it into the business world. Tony Blair, for example, was very good at it and appeared genuinely sorry and apologetic. That, I think, has had its impact on corporate communications,' he says.

There are risks, however, in making a public apology, not least of which are the potential legal implications of accepting the blame. ‘You have to be very careful to avoid liability,' says Grayson. ‘Your first response to a crisis should always be to respond neutrally. You need to be seen to be doing something, but that may be just an assurance that you're investigating the situation. It's about buying time - ensuring you have the space to respond properly, and in a considered way.'

Getting time to effectively respond to a crisis may be difficult in the immediacy of an environment where the press is demanding answers. Grayson, however, thinks the solution lies in having the right systems in place. ‘Everyone in an organisation needs to understand how to respond to a crisis or problem. That may require internal training with the overriding rule that nobody talks to the press without first referring it to a person in the know - either the internal head of PR or perhaps an external legal adviser. It's about getting the right procedures in place and ensuring everybody understands them.'

‘All companies should have a crisis manual,' adds Eperon. ‘You need to have a rule book/briefing pack in place and all parties have to understand and accept the crisis-response process. You also need to remember cultural differences - what is an appropriate response in the Western world may not go down so well in the Far East, for example.'

Trezise also points to the importance of timing. ‘There's a window of opportunity to apologise - leave it too late and it might seem like you've been strong armed into making an apology. It's more likely that you'll come across as sincere if you act swiftly.'

But where a well-timed apology might help in calming a difficult situation and restoring consumer/public confidence, there is also a danger in apologising too regularly. ‘London Transport has a reputation for constantly apologising and the danger is that it falls on deaf ears,' says Trezise. ‘The question has to be raised: Why do you keep apologising? There has to be a point in saying sorry, otherwise it's relatively meaningless.'

Both Trezise and Eperon agree that the best apologies have a purpose and are primarily focused on action. ‘It's really rather irrelevant whether you actually say sorry or not. The key is demonstrating what you're going to do to rectify a problem,' says Eperon. Trezise acknowledges that there is an increased recognition of the role of the apology in corporate communications, but saying sorry needs to be followed up by a commitment to action and then by the action itself. ‘An apology in a vacuum just doesn't work,' she says.

Such is the growing trend for companies to apologise when things go wrong that there seems to be rarely a day when some business or another isn't saying sorry. As Eperon says, this may be a danger in itself in that what was originally a rather unique and sincere human response to a crisis becomes nothing more than an overused PR technique foisted upon an increasingly cynical audience.

Having said that, as the Terminal 5 episode demonstrates, a well-timed and properly considered apology that is directly linked to action can be extremely effective in calming a crisis situation. Whether it is communicating to stakeholders or to a mass consumer audience, the key to success appears to be purpose - communicating exactly what you're going to do to fix the problem. Just as in our personal lives, the business world needs to recognise that merely saying sorry is never enough.