Last week, we were reminded of the importance of a proper apology by U.S. presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. Following the release of an incendiary video featuring Trump discussing the use of his celebrity power to get away with what many have described as sexual assault, the campaign responded with an apology.
Trump started off in the right direction by stating: “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.” But in the hyper-aggressive fashion that has become the hallmark of his campaign, he could not resist the opportunity to remind the world of the past wrongs of former president Bill Clinton by stating: “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course – not even close.” And then he doubled down: “Bill Clinton actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.”
Inspired by his classic 1980s paperweight, The Art of the Deal, we thought we would use this blog to discuss the art of the apology.
There are plenty of circumstances that might result in you or your company having to issue an apology. Workplace harassment, inappropriate relationships, contaminated or faulty products, or offensive comments or actions taken by your employees in public. From drunken employees getting kicked off international flights to drunken employees throwing beer cans at baseball games to drunken employees yelling lewd comments at on-air female reporters. You get the point.
In some of those situations, you or your company might not be at fault at all, but if your brand reputation is on the line, you might consider an apology. The Toronto Blue Jays apologized to the Baltimore Orioles for the beer-tossing. Hydro One publicly criticized but then rehired the employee they fired for shouting obscenities at a female reporter, after he apologized to her. And RIM issued a statement strongly criticizing the behavior of their former employees, emphasizing that they had been dismissed for their inappropriate and illegal actions.
When we conduct media training with executives, one of the most important sessions is about the importance of a well-executed apology to shore up trust in a brand during crisis. One of the best examples is the Maple Leaf Foods apology, issued in 2008 after several Canadians had died from listeriosis after eating contaminated products. The company bought commercial spots during the most-watched television hours, including during Hockey Night in Canada, to play a short but powerful video of their Chairman. He sat at his desk and looked straight at the camera, speaking directly to Canadians. He took responsibility for what had happened. He was sincere and vulnerable – you could almost hear his voice shaking with emotion. He apologized and committed to taking whatever measures necessary to ensure this never happened again.
Taking responsibility can pose a legal risk and many corporate lawyers will advise against it. But in this case, Maple Leaf Foods knew their products had made many people sick and killed others. A major legal settlement was unavoidable. Instead, they were hoping to avoid the destruction of their brand.
This case study sets out for us the rules for apology. This next part is a science; the art comes after.
- Factually summarize what happened so that your audience knows you understand what you or your company did wrong.
- Take responsibility. This is not the time to deflect blame or reference the wrongs of others. Only speak to that for which you are responsible.
- Actually say the words: “I am sorry.”
- Explain what you are going to do about it to ensure it never happens again.
- Continue to apologize if the matter is raised again by the media.
If you follow this scientific formula, your apology will be about 90-per-cent there. The final 10 per cent is the most important, but too often missed.
Communicating your sincerity and empathy is an art. There is no formula you can follow to resonate in the hearts of your audience. It is utterly subjective in the same way that your child’s finger-painting might look like a total mess to a stranger, but is more valuable than a Picasso to you.
It can be difficult to surrender your righteousness and admit you were at fault. It’s humbling. But that is entirely the point. Face the music. Eat the crow. Pay the piper. These old expressions have survived generations because their wisdom is universal. When the most important asset you have, your reputation, is on the line, the only choice you have is to heed those words of the wise.
The science of an apology is simple and sure. But the art of the apology is something we cannot teach. You have to actually mean it.