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Paula Vannells’ apology – the lessons for crisis communications.
May 24, 2024

Paula Vannells’ apology – the lessons for crisis communications.

Paula Vannells has apologised. Well, sort of. As crisis communications consultants we would describe the apparent mea culpa by the former CEO of the Post Office’s at the Horizon scandal enquiry as an “I’m sorry…now that I’ve been caught,” apology.

The question of how organisations and high profile individuals should say sorry is more pertinent today than ever. We know because we’ve worked with many of them. 

The world is an increasingly unforgiving place for organisations. More demanding consumers, ever aggressive social media, greater regulation and increasingly complex supply chains mean that it’s more likely than ever that an organisation will find itself having to apologise. In many situations, as in that of the Post Office, it will be the CEO themselves that are having to make the apology personally.

In our Media Training courses, crisis communication courses and message development and testing workshops we spend quite a bit of time looking at apologies. 

How to give a corporate apology

How should an organisation apologise? Before we talk about how to do it, it’s important to think about when to do it. The simple answer is that, unlike Paula Vennells, you should do it as soon as possible.

In crisis communications training we used to talk about “the golden hour”. This was the time from the emergence of a problem or a crisis erupting during which the organisation could get on the front foot and manage the message. After this critical 60 minutes they would probably find themselves constantly reacting and having to run to keep up with the news cycle. Today, with the advent of social media that golden hour probably lasts just a few minutes. That’s why, if you are going to apologise you need to do it quickly.

The next question is about the difference between an apology and an expression of sympathy. It might be that your organisation has been affected by something which is not directly your fault. Or it might not yet be clear where the blame lies. In this case you won’t necessarily want to apologise but you will certainly want to get out a statement that expresses sympathy, especially for those adversely affected.

An effective apology meets three criteria

According to social psychologists at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and Ohio State University, an effective apology meets three criteria. First, it must be credible. Second, it should work to restore the good will of the recipients, and third it involves taking responsibility for correcting the problem over the long term. These three criteria link to three questions that the Harvard Business Review has developed as part of its research. They are:

Credibility: Do we tell the truth?

Goodwill: On whose behalf are we acting?

Responsibility: How do our actions benefit those who trust us?

According to the Review, “To help win back trust, apologies should prominently feature the people who have been harmed – and in whose name the company pledges to do better in the future.” They also need to look at taking responsibility, asking the question, “How do our actions benefit those who trust us?”

Having looked at when, let’s talk about how a corporation should apologise

First, they need to think about the channels that they’re going to use. Today, social media is a key if not primary platform. Putting out an apology on Twitter or X, as it’s now known, will enable it to reach the target audience very quickly. You might also want to put your apology on your website and issue a press release. If the incident is really serious, having a senior manager make a statement to the media is also advisable.

Either way, as we say in our crisis communications training, it’s important that everyone within the organisation knows what’s going on and, in this case, is aware of the problem and the apology statement. This means customer service representatives, account managers, sales teams, call centres and anybody else who might be speaking externally.

Organisations must use natural language in an apology 

It’s very tempting for human beings as well as organisations when they feel that they are under attack to adopt corporate language and use formal words and phrases. This doesn’t work in any communication, but it certainly won’t hit the mark in an apology. Simple, natural language will add to the feeling of sincerity. Action words – tell us what you’re doing – are also useful.

Use the active voice. “Mistakes were made,” is the classic weasel worded apology. Of course, they were – but by whom? Using the active voice along with short sentences adds to the immediacy, impact and authenticity of your apology.

If you’re going to apologise unreservedly. Here’s another phrase that really irks us in an apology: “I’m sorry for any offence that I’ve caused.” Well, you have caused offence, and you know it – that’s why you’re supposed to be apologising. As we advise clients in our crisis communications training courses and our message development and testing workshops, if you’re going to apologise, then do so completely and unreservedly. Any little qualifications will let journalists and other audiences have a go at you. This only serves to keep the story running in the media. An apology without excuses sounds humble as well as sincere and will prevent critics from coming back at you.

Understand the difference between explaining and excusing

In our crisis communications training courses, we tell participants that you can explain but not excuse. What’s the difference? Explaining what happened puts the situation into context. It can also enable you to release information rather than having investigative journalists trying to expose it. As a result, it demonstrates your transparency and your willingness to cooperate with external agencies.

Excusing looks like another of those weasel-worded, highly qualified apologies. “It’s not our fault because…” might be a tempting line to take, but it really won’t wash with external audiences. If it’s your fault you need to take the blame and apologise completely.

Understand the difference between explaining and excusing

It’s important to understand difference between the two. A failure of competence is easier to manage. This just means that your systems didn’t work on this occasion. Perhaps they weren’t implemented properly, or they might need to be reviewed because circumstances have changed.

Again, a full apology with a clear of the action you’re going to take will have most people thinking that you’ve done the best under the circumstances. After all, you want people to think that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and we all make mistakes. 

Failure of integrity is considerably more difficult. We worked with one company whose unethical sales practices were exposed in a TV report. The apology and crisis communication strategy that we developed for this company had to be much more powerful and far reaching. 

This brings us onto another point about apology – as well as expressing sympathy and contrition it should also include some form of action. What are you doing to make sure that these mistakes don’t happen again? How are you going to rectify the situation? Including this in simple punchy language – although there’s no need for any great detail at this stage – is important in a corporate apology.

Company apologies and social media

Social media is a great channel for sending out an apology as we’ve mentioned. But if you do use it, then it’s important not to get involved in arguments with other users who respond to your post. Once you’ve apologised, leave it there don’t try and defend or, respond to any replies. The only exception is, of course, if they’re possibly defamatory or contain serious factual in accuracies.

Sorry, it’s often said, can be the hardest word to say. Certainly, many of those senior managers of the Post Office involved in the Horizon scandal, are having trouble apologising convincingly. However, an effective apology can not only help preserve an organisation’s reputation, it can even enhance it.

Crisis communication

We provide crisis communication training programmes to meet the exact needs of each client. This means that we can develop a course that will work for you. Come and talk to us. You can follow us on LinkedIn here.

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