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.

  2. says

    I always like what Ruth has to say,Let me ask you to consider a slightly different perspective. Corporations can’t apologize just as corporations can’t harm anyone, assault anyone. If an apology is tricky it will neither be authentic nor sincere in the eyes of those victimized. Corporations can’t be hanged or put in prison, Apologies are unconditional decisions. Apologies are freely given, Apologies are unconditional admissions and Apologies explain what went wrong and who was at fault. Apologies are about penance, reconciliation, integrity and humility, recognition of damage done to the victims by the perpetrators. Apologies sincerely seek forgiveness. .

    Apologies are the atomic energy of empathy. Apologies very promptly start to stop bad things from happening. Apologies are extraordinary acts of love. Apologies are never legal issues. Apologies are remarkable acts of leadership because apology is always a leadership decision coupled with action.

    Neither PR people nor lawyers can be effective apologizers because no one believes them, and because both are staff advisors with very limited fields of action who can only make recommendations. When an attorney speaks for an organization we automatically know that the situation is a lot worse than we currently know and some things are intentionally being withheld or hidden.

    In civil litigation I try never to have the lawyer who tries the case be the settlement negotiator. Also I start settlement talks as soon as the client begins preparation for trial, sometimes before. I encourage the client to use an entirely different law firm or approach for settlement. In the US less than 1 in a hundred cases actually ever go to trial.

    When you start settlement talks right away it is surprising how many expensive motions you avoid like dismissal, summary judgement, discovery that just re-victimizes. Judges love early and sincere settlement talks. And remember that the odds of achieving a settlement are 100 to one in favor of it happening but . . . usually only after a couple expensive years of failed lawyering and expensive tugging and swatting victims.. After all that time of picking and poking and humiliating the victims you will be apologizing for sure just to get the thing over with.

    It takes no special research or fact finding to apologize. You sit down with the victims and or their attorney, at first and simply ask the victims what they want to make them feel better. Go from there.

    When the lawyers object I remind the client that the smallest check they will ever write is the one that gets done this week. The way to win over those we have offended is with generosity, sensibility, compassion, sensibility and speed. Speed of action, ordered by the client, beats a smart legal strategy every time.

    What is really tricky and expensive is unnecessarily denying that harm was done and prolonging the suffering of victims by delay, humiliating treatment, vocally doubting, denigrating or demeaning the motives of victims.

    When people first approach me about helping them because they have tried everything to avoid settling the matter I ask four questions:

    1. Have you fully informed your insurance carrier? Surprising how many haven’t
    2. Are you working with legal help experienced in the specific type of situation you are facing? Surprising how many get a lawyer from the same firm that has available time to bill.
    3. Are you working with an experienced crisis manager who has direct experience in your situation? Surprising how many PR firms or practitioners say, ”We can do that.” Rarely.true you’re getting a bench warmer.
    4. Have you or your leader talked to your/their mom? Start with what she told you to do and things will likely get better by the day after tomorrow.


  3. says

    Thank you for making these relevant additions. It is challenging to fit all of the salient points on this subject into a brief article or short Q&A. In fact, in the Strategic Reputation Management course I teach in Rutgers’ communication master’s degree program, I have a unit dedicated to this complex topic. Consequently, I encourage others to add tips and comments to this online exchange. And since I’ll be teaching this class again in the spring, feel free to share any interesting case studies you may have that touch on this subject.

  4. says

    Good article — thank you.

    I would add that too often corporate apologies involve weasel words, such as “mistake” and “regret” rather than “wrong” and “sorry”. This is no accident, because they attempt to water down the wrong-doing. But “mistake”, to me anyway, conjures up a lack of intent. Turning left, when you meant to turn right, is a “mistake”. Dialling the wrong number, is a “mistake”. But spending months defrauding shareholders, or participating in a year-long extra-marital affair, are not — merely — “mistakes”. They signify numerous, conscious decisions to keep doing something wrong — and harmful. Passive language, such as “It’s regrettable”, is also too often used in apologies. And frankly, I can’t help who they think they’re fooling.

    The threat of litigation obviously, influences all this, but the damage to a company’s reputation can be so profound due to poor communication in a crisis, that it trumps the crisis itself. And may even leave lawyers without much of a company left to defend.

  5. kannan Chetlur says

    When and why to apologise is a critical question. When the incident affects people then it is a fit case of unconditional apology.But in a case like an Airline mishap, who is really accountable when there is no sabotage. Could be nature or a system failure in-flight , because the airplane is expected to be in top condition every time it takes off, Here Human error is possible The thing is the organisation should feel sorry even if it is not directly responsible if it affects human lives. People expect regret from the company at the least. Just passing the buck or trying to defend will damage company reputation. When an apology can console the world, abstaining from it could be a major setback.

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