If an apology is the highest form of acceptance of responsibility for misdeeds in crisis management, then why do many primary stakeholders (the primary publics) reject it?
Much of the problem lies in the perception of the degree of apology by stakeholders.
The image and reputation of an organisation, or person, depends on stakeholder perceptions of them. If corporations don’t understand ‘perception’ then the effectiveness of the apology can be limited, if at all effective on stakeholders’ behavioural responses.
The media is said to be at fault for this failure today, just as are politicians, corporate heads and others in the community when it comes to saying the word with any sincerity. The media’s favourite questions are: “Are you sorry it happened?” “Will you apologise for it happening?” “Will you say ‘sorry’ to the victims?” These are ‘headline’ getting questions, not ones which are put forward for sincerity or for an effective apology showing full disclosure and a willingness to engage.
Research shows there are five ways to say ‘sorry’ and that it is the hardest word to say when facing a crisis situation. For years the legal fraternity would not allow corporations to say the word because they interpreted it as an admission of guilt or fault.
Today, we are faced with the word having little value at all to its true meaning, unless communicators and CEOs understand how to deliver it in the situation they are facing.
The recent Royal Commission into the banking and insurance industry brought the word to the forefront of many of the issues raised, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was another who found it hard to say over the Cambridge Analytica debacle earlier this year; the Church has been saying it time and time again to victims of sexual abuse by the clergy; and Donald Trump goes around insisting that he has nothing to apologize for, including the string of ugly epithets he applied to women.
To admit to being sorry also seems to many an invitation to be attacked. But research shows that most of the time it disarms, rather than encourages one’s critics. Joint research from the Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania suggests that over four experiments, people are more likely to trust those who make a superfluous apology. “Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust by saying ‘I’m sorry’– even when they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain,” they wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Leading with an apology for something out of your control – is much more likely to lead to acts of trust, the researcher found. However, research has also found that if an organisation is perceived to be largely responsible for the crisis, there is a need of a high degree of apology and subsequent stakeholder actions. If you don’t understand perception and its effects on reputation and the effects of sorry on perception, talk to RMA.