The dos and don’ts of issuing a public apology: a guide for CEOs

The dos and don’ts of issuing a public apology: a guide for CEOs

By Natasha Ndlebe

Nobody likes admitting they are wrong. Several recent high-profile mishaps show that the art of drafting a public apology is not always well understood. But your business could depend on it.

Below are some dos and don’ts.

Do acknowledge the mistake and include the words “I am sorry” in the apology

Acknowledging the mistake and apologising are crucial. There is a subtle but important difference between saying, “I apologise” and “I am sorry”. A sincere “I am sorry” can limit the damage.

After a colossal error of judgement shut down its systems for nearly a week, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman publicly apologised. He also announced an amendment to the airlines customer bill of rights that specifies if there are any delays, customers will be compensated. “We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry,” said Neeleman. No equivocating there!

Don’t take your time to issue an apology

When a company faces a public crisis as a result of its action or inaction, the quieter it is, the more livid the public becomes. This is typically driven by the fear that admitting wrongdoing means admitting liability. Usually, however, such inaction catches up with the firm. This was the case with airbag manufacturer Takata Corporation. Its faulty manufacturing processes produced airbags containing metal fragments, resulting in injuries – and, in some cases, death – when airbags exploded. It took a decade for the company to take responsibility for this error, with severe consequences for Takata’s reputation.

Do put effort into the apology

The apology should come from the CEO to show that the matter is being taken seriously. It should address the situation and show empathy for what happened. And it should reassure the public that the incident will not happen again.

Mark Zuckerberg tends to draft lengthy but earnest public apologies when malfunctions occur on Facebook. But as controversy surrounding the spread of “fake news” has grown, Facebook’s response has often been found wanting.

Don’t add fuel to the fire

Do not default to knee-jerk defence of the brand. This can do more harm than good, as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz recently discovered after Chicago aviation police violently ejected passenger Dr David Dao from a plane. Munoz fuelled broader public outrage over airlines’ abuse of customers when he declared: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

This cold failure to apologise directly and accept responsibility contributed to a steep decline in United’s stock price.

Avoid phrases such as “I apologise if anyone was offended” and “assuming anyone took offence”; they convince no one.

 Do research

If time allows, investigate the incident before issuing an apology. This will ensure a comprehensive apology that identifies the reason for the incident and outlines immediate follow-up actions. But if a review will take a long time, issue an apology that states that a review will be undertaken.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO expressed her regret on Twitter for the inability of Y-mail users to access their emails. She further tweeted an apology by senior vice president Jeffrey Bonforte detailing the problem, which stated: “We have dozens of people working around the clock to bring it to a resolution.”

Don’t shift the blame

In 2015, regulators discovered that Volkswagen had installed illegal software to cheat on emissions tests. The then CEO of Volkswagen U.S., Michael Horn, had the following to say:

“These events are deeply troubling. I did not think that something like this was possible at Volkswagen Group… This was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason … This was not a corporate decision. There was no board meeting that approved this.”

This statement conveys a CEO who is unaware of what is happening in his company and brings his leadership into question. Moreover, it shows that he is unwilling to take responsibility for what happened.

In short, when your company has messed up, you should apologise quickly and cleanly. Keep it direct, stating the nature of the problem and its solution. Take responsibility. And above all, don’t let it happen again.