Is It Too Late Now To Say Sorry?

This blog post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse in April 2015.

I think Elton John had it wrong. While I date myself when admitting that I love the song "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word," I couldn't resist tying it in, because a real-time review of American news coverage speaks strongly to the contrary. Sorry, in fact, seems to be getting a whole lot easier in brand communications. 

We live in the Apology Era. In the past week alone, a Google news search finds 238 stories using some form of the word apology, most of them in the headline. In the past 24 hours alone, 55 apology stories have been filed. Here's just a sampling:

Political apologies:
Japanese prime minister stands by apologies for Japan's WWII abuses
NY Assemblyman William Scarborough resigning, admits lying about being in Albany

Celebrity apologies:
Alice Eve Apologizes for Comments About Bruce Jenner
Pamela Anderson And Rick Salomon Apologize For "Hurtful" Divorce Battle

Sports apologies:
Rockets apologize to Mavs for in-game 'it will all be over soon' tweet
Mayweather Apologizes to Ellerbe for Critical Comments 

Beer apologies:
People Are Saying Bud Light's New Tagline Promotes Rape Culture

College president apologies:
Quinnipiac president apologizes for comments at party 

Even charitable organization apologies:
Goodwill Apologizes For Offensive Tweet About Breastfeeding Mom 

And by the time you read this, there likely will be more apology stories in the latest news cycle. We're on track for more than 12,000 stories dealing with apologies in 2015. Should newsrooms have staff dedicated to the "apology" beat?

What this means to our society I'll leave for others to debate, but what does it mean in terms of managing your organization's brand and reputation? When should you say, "we're sorry" and, perhaps more important, how?

A commentary by Fortune Magazine's Brett Arends, "When Apologies Make No Sense," that ran last December made a compelling case for waiting until it is absolutely necessary - if ever - to issue an apology.

One of his points: "The trouble is, when you apologize, you admit guilt. And that throws away any chance of a defense. Your supporters have nowhere to go." 

Clearly, I'm not saying that apologies don't have a place-each circumstance has to dictate the right words (and more importantly, actions) to demonstrate true contrition on the part of the offending organization. PerfectApology.com provides its "scientific" construct of a perfect apology, which includes these components:

  • a detailed account of the situation
  • acknowledgement of the hurt or damage done
  • taking responsibility for the situation
  • recognition of your role in the event
  • a statement of regret
  • asking for forgiveness
  • a promise that it won't happen again
  • a form of restitution whenever possible

What I am saying is that, in the Apology Era, the public and your constituents will no longer be readily accepting of a simple "we're sorry." Many minds are tired, or at least leery, of apologies, so any communications strategy that includes one should be carefully thought through. Sometimes, clarity in the form of useful information is better than an apology.

Take Jeni's Ice Cream's website statement. Following last week's company disclosure of listeria in its manufacturing process, which triggered a comprehensive product recall, Jeni's issued no apology for inconveniences-just responsible information: 

"We received the call that no ice cream maker, chef, or entrepreneur wants. A randomly selected pint of ours tested positive for the presence of Listeria monocytogenes. Out of an abundance of caution, we made the swift decision to cease all ice cream production and sales until we can get to the very root of the problem. We are enlisting the help of experts so we can identify the cause, eliminate it, and return as quickly as possible to the business of making ice cream."

Jeni's statement, like its ice cream, is refreshing. Jeni's has received widespread support for its handling of this crisis, most notably from its loyal customer following who pledge on social media to buy pints when they become available.

Before electing to apologize for your next perceived misstep, think twice. And use an experienced public relations counselor in tune with today's Apology Era to make sure that you don't have to apologize later for a bad apology.