The Value of an Apology

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Posted: March 30, 2015, 2:05 p.m.
by Annslee Wilson.

With more outlets available now than ever before for brands to reach and interact with their audiences, it is often too easy for a brand to tarnish its image. A single word or action holds the power to ruin a company or individual’s reputation. Brands, public figures and celebrities can be defined by how they handle a crisis and, even more importantly, by how they apologize.

It’s safe to say that crises are inevitable. Some are big; some are small. Some companies and individuals are able to recover from their downfall; others are not. Some companies release an apology via social media, others stick to more traditional means. But one thing remains the same when it comes to handling crises — the sincerity of an apology determines whether or not companies or individuals will get back on their feet or if their image is doomed.

On Feb. 23, on the Oscars edition of E!‘s “Fashion Police,” host Giuliana Rancic made a comment that many deemed offensive and racist. While commenting on 18-year-old actress Zendaya’s new dreadlocks, Rancic stated that it made Zendaya appear to smell of “patchouli oil and weed.” Zendaya turned to Twitter to share a photo of her lengthy defensive response to Rancic’s comment. Rancic responded to Zendaya via Twitter saying, “Dear Zendaya, I’m sorry I offended you and others. I was referring to a bohemian chic look. Had NOTHING to do with race and NEVER would!!!”

Sincere? I think not. Rancic appears to be apologizing for offending people, but not for the action itself. But this brings up the question of whether or not a sincere apology can be made in 140 characters. Last Tuesday, Rancic made an on-air apology that did, indeed, appear to be sincere.

Other individuals choose to release their apologies in traditional forms, such as a hand-written letter.

On Feb. 24, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez released a hand-written letter  to the public to apologize for his “past mistakes,” that could include the use of performance-enhancing drugs that ultimately led to his 162-game suspension. Despite the negative flack he received for his vague apology, as a devoted A-Rod fan, I sensed a big dose of sincerity (pun not intended) in his letter. However, the timing could be slightly questionable. Spring training for the MLB began on Feb. 25; is Rodriquez simply trying to get on good terms with his fans before the season hits off? The world may never know. But A+ for effort, A-Rod!

Courtesy of Gikon (Flickr)
Courtesy of Gikon (Flickr)

When it comes to corporate apologies, no one does it better than Apple. Back in 2012, CEO Tim Cook posted a letter to the Apple website addressing and apologizing for the difficulties users were experiencing with the maps app. Cook provided a detailed explanation as to why users were experiencing their frustration with the app and assured users that it would be fixed as soon as possible. He also offered suggestions for alternative applications to download in the meantime, such as Google Maps, Bing and MapQuest. What’s not to love about a man lending a helping hand to his own competitors?

Every PR professional’s BFF, William Benoit, tells us there are five strategies that are most commonly used for corporate apologies: denial, evasion of responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action and mortification. When it comes to public relations, the mortification strategy is usually the go-to method. This approach is used when a brand or individual takes full responsibility of an action and asks for forgiveness, followed by continual efforts afterward to repair the image. While this might be the most difficult type of apology to use, it is generally the most direct and effective.

So when it comes down to it, the main ingredients in an apology are sincerity and some old-fashioned, genuine lovin’. It’s also important to consider the outlet in which the apology will be released. The bigger the crisis, the more important a truly meaningful apology is. But on the flip side, a crisis is a crisis, and each one requires a well-thought-out apology. Ultimately, communication is key.

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