Elton John said it best – sorry seems to be the hardest word. Maybe that’s why so many CEOs and leaders fail to deliver an apology that makes the grade when the time comes to admit that they or their organisation have done something wrong.
Here’s how your CEO can make an apology that leads to forgiveness:
Faster, faster: decide whether you need to apologise as soon as possible. If an apology is deemed necessary don’t waste any time delivering it as apology delayed is considered an apology denied.
Take us to your leader: an apology must be delivered by the person in charge. Of course this means that leaders and CEOs may have to apologise for behaviour over which they realistically had no control. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. An apology delivered by a genuine leader of an organisation adds authenticity – and authenticity is key.
Face-to-face is best: a written statement only goes so far to convey regret. When possible, have your leader or CEO apologise on camera, on microphone and face-to-face. That said, use every channel you have available
Content: keep your apology simple and direct. Ensure that you specifically say that you apologise, that you are sorry and that you regret. Use those words. Name specific audiences or organisations to which you apologise. Don’t obfuscate or meander – keep it short, sincere and sweet.
Similarly the CEO or leader making the apology should use the word “I” rather than “we” even though using “I” may seem inappropriate when speaking on behalf of a company. However “I” more effectively implies to the listener that the person making the apology genuinely takes responsibility.
No conditions apply: we all see attractive offers from retailers offering us a bargain accompanied with an asterisk indicating that conditions apply. Our hearts sink. Similarly your apology must be wholehearted and without condition. Resist the temptation to explain mitigating circumstances as it dilutes your apology.
Don’t do what former UK Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg does in this awkward video that attempted to counter the massive criticism of his policy backflips. He opens up by commenting that many people extend compliments to him as he travels around the country. It’s a lily- livered effort. No wonder it was parodied so well.
Script? Do you need a script when you are fighting with your beloved? Of course not. The words pour out of your mouth because you’re speaking – at least at that moment – from the heart. Similarly the CEO or leader making his apology should be able to make that apology with minimal reference to notes or script. Reading out an apology word-for-word from a piece of paper makes the apologist look weak. That’s the sort of thing people do on advice from their lawyers.
Video? A long time ago a short-lived Governor General Peter Hollingworth issued an apology in a series of pre-recorded video grabs to be distributed to television news services. This was on the advice of a blue-chip public affairs consultant. It was stupid advice. The raw video clips were leaked and made him look calculating and insincere – after all who needs a script and rehearsals if they’re making a sincere apology?
Emotions: ideally your CEO’s apology will not look robotic. However don’t let your leader blubber her way through the episode. Cynical audiences will interpret this as the CEO being self-centred, self-pitying and “all about herself”.
Rinse & Repeat: don’t think that an apology is a one-off. Repeat your apology to different audiences via different channels ad nauseam until people are sick of hearing it. By this time your CEO will certainly be sick of saying it. Now read our blog on crisis management.
Witty post-script care of Sandra Wilson, Hepatitis Australia:
Your newsletter always contains remarkable common sense and we here at Hepatitis Australia really appreciate receiving them.
I hope you’ll forgive me for telling you that an apologist is not a person who apologises. An apologist is ‘someone who defends someone by argument’. C.S. Lewis, who wrote ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ was an apologist for God.
I think there is a real need to invent a word for someone who apologises as I can’t seem to find one. We shall have to think about this. Something witty such as the word that was invented for a late (usually brilliant) reply to criticism – a ‘retortalate’ and for people who frequent coffee shops – the lateratti. Maybe the word should be ‘sorrierer’ ? Oh definitely not! Perhaps a ‘pardonist’ – no…
Still thinking and with kindest regards
Sandra Wilson, Business Support & Information Officer, Hepatitis Australia
Sandra – I stand corrected.