Apologise, definitely, but insure against backwash

If you are going to apologise, make sure you do it properly.Apologies are a powerful force. They are an essential act of faith that can marshal support and goodwill in a crisis. But apologies reward some and punish others. In some cases, the apology itself can become the headline scandal.

At the heart of a good or bad public apology is the attitude of a business and its leadership towards the situation and long-term brand damage. Given there are so many public apology case studies and lessons to draw from history, why are good public apologies still so rare? And why do so many great businesses get it so wrong?

Businesses trade on trust. When that foundation is rocked, we often see a tsunami of dire consequences: share prices tumble; employee morale sinks; productivity suffers; regulation tightens its squeeze; customers defect and boycott; and, the media circus sucks all the energy from the emergency room.

Every day business winds threaten with increased velocities in a cultural and media environment that demands honesty and ethical steadfastness. What is astounding, however, is how quickly genius in the senior ranks of great companies can turn to stupidity and arrogance when things go pear-shaped.

Warren Buffett once said to his employees: ”Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

Reputations run very deep and wide. They are usually built on a consistent and brilliant record of delivering on promises and how their cultures manage ethics, innovation, quality, safety, sustainability and security that shape stakeholders’ expectations.

Robust moral principles come under assault very quickly in a crisis and few chances are afforded to companies and their leaders when they fail to apologise with humility, empathy and sincerity, with the right message, at the right time.

Many events can turn into reputational firestorms. Such events can, however, be neutralised with an effective apology. But with too little, too late, any scandal will threaten a company’s brand and damage a leader’s reputation. While there are no guarantees, there are a few central guidelines to effective public apologies:

■ Don’t put your reputation in the hands of the lowest common denominator. You will not triumph.

■ Be in the media early, be clear with your message and provide a detailed account of the situation.

■ Don’t be clever or coy. Admit to mistakes immediately, take responsibility and be accountable. Acknowledge the damage that has been done and express regret.

■ Small gestures and actions have a huge impact. Make everything count. Make it matter.

■ Don’t be aloof. Remember it is not about you. Lock up your ego in the top drawer of your desk.

■ Express concern for customers, shareholders and employees and promise it will never happen again. They ultimately are the ones you are asking for forgiveness.

■ Avoid ambiguity, tricky words and figures of speech. Do not use qualifiers or be loose with the facts. Offering restitution is even better and will reduce anxiety.

■ Authenticity is crucial. Do not take short cuts and remember some words are better than others. You can only deliver a good apology with your best performance.

And when it’s all done, don’t expect applause.

Georgie Morell is a corporate affairs consultant. She has worked with ASIC, BHP Billiton and Wesfarmers.

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