Elon Musk apologises again – how organisations should say sorry
March 8, 2023

Elon Musk has apologised for mocking one of his employees who is disabled. There are lessons to be learnt from this latest Musk story for those interested in crisis communications training courses and media training.

Haraldur Thorleifsson had been let go by Twitter, and following an exchange between the two men, Musk tweeted that Thorleifsson “did no actual work, claimed as an excuse that he had a disability that prevented him from typing”. Later, Musk tweeted: “I would like to apologise to Halli for my misunderstanding of his situation. It was based on things I was told that were untrue or, in some cases, true, but not meaningful. He is considering remaining at Twitter.”

The Twitter boss also offered an apology earlier this year for helping to spread a conspiracy theory about the brutal attack in October on Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What does this latest controversial comment by Musk tell us about how organisations should apologise? Let’s start by looking at how not to apologise.

How not to apologise

Don’t be late. If you’re going to say sorry for something, then do it quickly. One of the worst examples here is when holiday company Thomas Cook took nine years to express sympathy for the deaths of two children who died of carbon monoxide poisoning while on one of its holidays.

It’s not about you. One of the case studies we look at during our crisis communications workshops is Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, at the time of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He apologised effectively, we would say, but then added the fateful words: “I’d like my life back.” So would the 11 people who had died in the incident, it was widely pointed out. Hayward left the company shortly after. More recently, the former CEO of Papa John’s, the pizza company, said he had been “working for 20 months” with therapy to get the N-word out of his vocabulary after he had been called out for using it. What a brave little soldier.

Don’t use weasel words and euphemisms. Another case we explore during our crisis communications courses is that of United Airlines and the highly critical media coverage of their removal of David Dao, one of their passengers, because of overbooking. Chief Executive Oscar Munoz issued a statement, saying: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency.” The word “re-accommodate” hardly does justice to the images of a man being yanked out of his seat and dragged off a plane screaming in front of his horrified fellow passengers. The reaction on social media was incendiary. While we’re at it, what does “moving with a sense of urgency” mean? “We’re working as fast as we can”? Just say it, then.

Don’t add qualifications. “I’m sorry if I’ve caused offence” is almost worse than not saying anything at all. What’s this “if”? Of course you’ve caused offence! If you’re going to apologise, then do it completely and unreservedly, usual natural language.

How to apologise – and do it right

Before we discuss this, it’s worth looking at the difference between an apology and an expression of sympathy, as this issue comes up regularly in our media training courses and crisis communications training. Although it’s legally debatable, an apology suggests that you’re accepting responsibility, which might have your legal advisors jumping in to veto any statement.

But the point is that whether you’re liable or not, you can always express sympathy. You might also want to explain that the situation is under investigation and that you’re working with the regulators and other independent authorities to determine exactly what happened. However, in the meantime, you’d like to express your concern for those affected and promise them that you’ll do your best to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

If you are going to apologise, then:

Act quickly. In our crisis communications and issue management courses, we recommend that organisations have some template statements pre-approved so that they can adapt them and populate them with the relevant facts. This allows them to release an apology more quickly.

Use natural language. Your CEO or named spokesperson should identify the words and phrases that work best for them. These should be checked by the Comms team or your PR consultancy. Avoid the passive – “mistakes were made,” as it looks like you’re seeking to shift the blame.

Don’t include qualifications or conditions. If you’re going to apologise – or express sympathy, then express it, clearly, simply and unreservedly.

Don’t try and blame anyone else. It might be that some individual or some other organisation is partly responsible, but pointing the finger at them during your statement of apology will backfire on you horribly. Let them decide what comment – if any – they’re going to make.

Sorry, really is often the hardest word for many organisations and individuals, but, as we say during our crisis communications and issue management training courses, if you get your apology right, it can not only minimise the damage to your brand image, but it can even improve how people think about you.

Media and Communications Training London

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