How to Craft the Perfect Apology
By Aaron Broverman
When NBC News anchor Brian Williams “misremembered” that the helicopter he was in during the 2003 U.S. Invasion of Iraq got shot down by an RPG and was not just following behind one that was, the resulting apology was lambasted by the other media and backfired into a six-month suspension from the NBC network without pay.
When Williams’s apology fell flat, we wondered what went wrong and if his apology wasn’t it, what actually makes the perfect apology?
We asked Mark Bernheimer, a former CNN correspondent and now the founder and principal at MediaWorks Resource Group, which provides media training, PR advice and crisis management for various major companies, to help us break it down.
“Brian Williams’s apology was really seen more as a footnote correction than a genuine expression of regret and because of that, now he’s being crucified in the media,” he says.
Choose Your Words
Williams’s predicament emphasizes that if you want to make the perfect apology, you must choose your words very carefully says Bernheimer.
“If you come out with an apology that seems forced, is not timely, or seems insincere, you’re going to create a brand new media cycle of negative coverage, just because you bungled your apology.”
“How you choose your words and the words that you choose, are every bit as important as the decision to make an apology.”
To Bernheimer, a bad apology is worse than no apology at all.
Get Ahead of It
When a client calls Bernheimer saying something bad is going to happen, the media consultant usually has two questions: Is it really something that is going to impact your stakeholders – your customers, your clients, your partners and, if it is, is it about to become public knowledge?
“If it is going to become public knowledge then we have to get out in front of it and take it proactively, rather than reacting to it,” he says.
Don’t Use Clichés
One of the worst things you can put in a public apology is a cliché.
“If you’re the CEO of an airline, there has been a crash, and people have been killed, you don’t want to say, ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.’ This has become hackneyed, clichéd language that doesn’t register with people,” says Bernheimer.
Instead, he recommends language that is more sincere, original and heartfelt to resonate much more deeply with your audience.
Think about Who’s Issuing the Apology
When it comes to these kinds of high-consequence apologies, who’s delivering the apology is often just as important as important as what the apology says. You should ask yourself, is this coming from a nameless, faceless corporation that is tweeting as the brand or is this coming from the CEO of the company talking about how badly he or she feels because this has happened?
“Often, you’ll get a lot more traction and a lot more resonance with the latter,” says Bernheimer.
“Now, it doesn’t mean that every time a company issues an apology, the CEO has to be trotted out to talk about his feelings, but it does mean that if it’s a very serious problem – where people have been hurt, for example – then the CEO really needs to come out and talk about his own thoughts about it, especially if there’s going to be shareholder outrage.”
Find a Balance between Public and Legal Relations
Often apologies come out sounding forced and insincere thanks to an overzealous legal team.
“Lawyers are looking out for one thing and one thing only,” says Bernheimer. “Lawyers don’t care about public relations and I don’t say that in a pejorative way because I work with lawyers all the time when I train corporations. A lawyer’s interest is not always aligned with mine. I’m looking out for the public image of the company and they’re looking out for the legal interests of the company.”
Of course, any apology is necessarily vetted by corporate counsel who may discourage the kind of language that resonates most with the public, but at the same time, could potentially leave the company open to litigation.
“It’s important to deliver a heartfelt admission of regret, but still have that admission stop short of something that can be used against the company in a legal setting,” says Bernheimer.
Keep It Personal
Personal apologies from human beings are always preferred over automatic or robotic ones from corporations. It also doesn’t hurt the CEO if they relate personally to the situation being apologized for.
“Say something like, ‘I use the product myself’ or ‘My children use the product themselves and so we’re all concerned about the discovery of this tainted batch,’ for example,” says Bernheimer.
“Personal expressions of remorse or personal experience can resonate much more than carefully scripted corporate lines.”
It’s also important to strategize and think about what you’re going to say ahead of time.
“If you’re going to go in front of the media and issue an apology, it’s imperative that you get training ahead of time, that you get your messages together and that you not think on your feet in front of the reporter and try to wing it.”