The Power of Apology in a Crisis

Imagine your company has to issue a massive product recall. Or is involved in an environmental disaster. Or comes under investigation for ethics violations. In situations like these, an effective apology to the public is a crucial part of the overall crisis response. Incomplete or inauthentic apologies can exacerbate the damage done to a company’s reputation by the crisis itself. According to Ruth Kinzey, reputation strategist, author, educator and president of The Kinzey Company, the format, content and delivery of that apology varies from crisis to crisis, but a good apology has central features that apply in any situation.

CW Executive Editor Natasha Nicholson asked Kinzey about how apologies can help to salvage a company’s reputation after disaster strikes.

Natasha Nicholson: Corporate apologies are a critical part of a crisis response strategy, but organizations often find them challenging. Why are corporate apologies so tricky?

Ruth Kinzey: Apologies are tricky because companies must determine their level of accountability, and to what degree they will assume liability for what has happened. Plus, there are legal implications; lawsuits are prevalent. So organizations must balance ethical obligations, liability issues and reputational concerns when determining the type of response they should issue.

Ruth Kinzey

Ruth Kinzey

A 2006 article by Barbara Kellerman in the Harvard Business Review called “When Should a Leader Apologize—and When Not?” offers an excellent decision-making guide. It suggests that companies ask themselves:

  • What function would a public apology serve?
  • Who would benefit from the apology?
  • Why would the apology matter?
  • What happens if you apologize publicly? (This is particularly good because there are times when a statement of concern or an explanation of the error is provided to the public but a full apology is issued in private.)
  • Will the refusal to apologize (or to do so promptly) make a bad situation worse?

After considering all of this, it’s easy to see why apologies are so tricky.

NN: When should companies issue a corporate apology–at the beginning, middle or end of a crisis?

RK: The timing and content of an apology depend on the type of event and how much is known about it.

You must understand what occurred. That way, you know why you are apologizing, and can relay pertinent facts and frame the apology to help stakeholders understand the situation.

For example, if a natural gas pipeline explodes, did it occur because someone crashed into it or was there a material defect? Most important is to ensure public safety with swift and appropriate action. An apology might be issued for inconveniencing those displaced from their homes, and a full apology might follow an investigation into the incident.

One thing is certain: If a full apology is in order and the pertinent information is available, do not delay. An apology will appear to be forced if it’s perceived as being issued only after garnering extensive media attention and much ire from the public. In this case, the company’s reputation suffers because it isn’t perceived as being responsible or concerned about the welfare of others.

NN: Who within the organization should typically issue the apology? Is it the CEO, the communication leader or someone else?

RK: This must be a case-by-case decision. When there is a major problem, an apology issued by the CEO demonstrates that the organization deeply regrets what occurred and that the company understands the gravity of the situation and its responsibility in causing it. But, the appearance of the CEO flags the incident as being significant. So, interest escalates, media attention mounts, and liability implications likely increase.

Also, some CEOs aren’t good at conveying genuine concern. If they  appear aloof or condescending, that distance them of from those listening to the apology, creating a negative rather than a positive emotional connection. In cases like this, the next-highest ranking officer may be the better choice. In this case, the perceived importance of the person issuing the apology still communicates that the company is taking the situation seriously, but if this person connects better with the audience in a personal way, the apology is likely to be better received.

When an apology is necessary but the event isn’t significant, it is inappropriate to rely on the CEO to deliver the message. The spokesperson would issue the apology. In such cases, the media and the public aren’t offended.

NN: What are some common mistakes made with issuing a corporate apology?
RK: The most common mistake is to skip a step in the process. A full apology includes these steps:

  • Acknowledge the crisis.
  • Accept responsibility.
  • Include a commitment to avoid such incidents in the future by describing what corrective action you’ll take.
  • Express concern or regret.

If you skip one, people notice. An incomplete apology can raise questions and concerns.

Another common mistake is the lack of authenticity or genuineness. If the person issuing the statement doesn’t sound sincere and if their demeanor doesn’t reflect concern, the apology won’t have an emotionally healing effect and may lack credibility.

Using the wrong spokesperson is another common error. For example, a CEO who is sure to become defensive isn’t a good choice. Likewise, having an individual from middle management serve as the official spokesperson for a tragic incident doesn’t demonstrate that the business recognizes the severity of the situation.

NN: What are the most critical elements that are needed to make a corporate apology effective?

RK: First, all four steps above are necessary for an effective and full apology.

Sometimes, a company leaves out what corrective action it will take. It’s important to identify–at least in a broad sense–how you learned from the event and what will change as a result. It could be an update of policies, a change in operations, or a commitment to take a specific action.

Promising to take corrective action has redemptive power. People are reassured by an organization that’s perceived as demonstrating genuine concern with a commitment to ensuring that such an incident doesn’t happen again. Of course, you must follow through or you have no credibility, particularly if the scenario occurs again.

Also, if the company is assuming full responsibility for the incident, it must do more than simply express regret. It needs to right the wrong, whether it’s by cleaning up an oil spill, paying for medical bills or changing manufacturing processes.

Finally, the apology must be authentic. The company must demonstrate genuine regret and concern.

Natasha Nicholson

Natasha Nicholson

Natasha Nicholson is director of content for IABC and the executive editor for CW.


  1. Gwendolyn Graves says

    I think society has forgotten that fundamental lesson you learn in Kindergarten. Orgs and people are happy to hang onto a mistake or something intentional that they have attempted to cover up because we don’t value authenticity. We hide, blame, refuse to acknowledge and the crisis morphs into something much worst, and there is no price tag once trust is gone that is big enough to deal with the soul deficits we keep reexperiencing over and over. At last you are left not believing in anything, simply because we think integrity can be bought and sold.
    I think the article regarding the apology of crisis hits us right where we live, unfortunately I don’t think anyone is home.

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