Helen Gottstein
Corporate public speaking skills for people of ambition

‘Tis the season to be sorry

Both organizations and humans mess up.

On a personal level, most of us find it difficult to apologize for something we’ve done that’s hurt someone. Organizations and celebrities have the same impulse.

We see it all the time.

Here’s what else is true: in this age of increasingly close reading of how organizations and people apologize, it makes even more sense to be proactive, and get ready so you can respond with grace under fire.

The good apology has a formula that when delivered well can reduce litigation, stop the bleed from your sales base, and save your brand.

Step 1: Open with a neutral statement and then state the bad news or failure directly and briefly, without sugarcoating or exaggerating it.

Step 2: Act like a human being.

Express empathy for those hurt.

Now, as a company rep. you may be thinking, Say what? That’s to open ourselves up to litigation. But consider this: while one in three doctors gets sued, we’ve known for a while that when doctors are empathic after something has gone wrong, it reduces litigation against them. Yes, you read that right. (*See Emotional Intelligence, Goleman)

Dr. Rob Hendry, Director at Medical Protection is the person responsible for protecting doctors from litigation says it like this. “We encourage healthcare professionals to apologize when things have gone wrong. An apology is not an admission of liability; rather, it is a way of expressing empathy.”

This means that while you should check any public statement with your legal or PR departments it could be smartest and most human to directly express empathy.

Step 3: Get very specific and very accurate about exactly what went wrong.

What was the scale of the software, machinery or human error that occurred. It’s key for controlling or at least impacting an unfolding narrative.

Step 4: Address the right audience.

“There’s no one wants thing over more than I do. I want my life back.” Tony Hayward, then CEP, BP, in 2010 after a rig explosion caused the biggest oil spill in US history.

Shockingly, Tony, this one wasn’t about you. Talk about a lack of empathy for the right audience.

  1. Share what you are doing and plan to do to ameliorate the situation
  2. Commit to change

This week, Drew Barrymore shared she was going ahead with season 4 of The Drew Barrymore Show and asked people from the striking Writers Guild to understand. They did not. Planning to go ahead and throw people under the bus means she had zero commitment to change and emptied her apology of substance.

Readiness of a general initial statement, preparation of spokespeople who can speak with the requisite warmth and gravitas required, planned coordination with your legal department so statements are timely and using the structure of the organizational apology makes sense for organizations.

On a personal level, a good apology means you get to have more peace in your house and in your heart.

Here’s how not to:

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” is what’s called the non-apology apology.

There’s no remorse for something said or done and there’s an implication the person who took offense was hypersensitive or irrational.

Another form of non-apology is the generic, “To anyone who might have been offended.”

In short, don’t 2017 Kevin Spacey it.

“I don’t remember. I was drunk. It was a long time ago. (And the string of conditional tenses that is a surefire indicator of the non-apology apology)… If I did X, then that would have been Y.”

P-lease, just stop it.

We’ve all done things we need to apologize for.

Here’s how yes to.

I’m sorry I Xed.

I can do better.

Personally, I’ve Xed far too many times this year.

I can do better.

Gmar chatima tova.

About the Author
Helen Gottstein, Loud and Clear Training, boosts public speaking skills for people of ambition and corporate teams so they reach their speaking goals. She's a popular public speaker, a TEDX mentor and a lousy cook.
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