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.
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?
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