Crisis communications and saying sorry: not just when, but how

We say sorry tens of times a day. ‘Sorry’ for bumping into someone in the street when it’s not our fault, ‘sorry, I didn’t quite catch that’ when you simply can’t hear; and of course we apologise for a perfectly legitimate complaint, ‘I’m sorry, but my soup is cold’. Perhaps our unique British politeness is to blame, but is the word sorry uttered so many times a day that it’s beginning to lose all meaning? I’d go as far to say that we don’t’ even realise when we’re saying sorry, or when we’re being apologised to. So for businesses caught in the midst of a PR disaster, how can they make their customers hear their apologies?

Firstly, as Stephanie recently blogged, timing is everything; it took Apple two long weeks to apologise for the Apple Maps debacle and they’re still mopping up the bad PR around that one. We’ve seen many corporate apologies in the past few weeks, particularly in the wake of the horse-meat scandal, and some in particular have stuck out. Tesco, though not the only guilty party by any stretch, has been a serial apologist throughout horsemeat-gate. It has taken out full-page ads in every national newspaper, more than once, to say sorry to customers.

There is something striking in this age of digital, rapid, instant, direct-to-the-consumer communication, that the full-page print newspaper apology is still so popular with big businesses; and looking more closely at what Tesco said is very interesting. An article on the BBC last week about the style of Tesco’s newspaper ads, suggested that they have more in common with poems than standard corporate apologies. Looking at the poems/apologies I find myself agreeing. They are great examples of some very creative copywriting on a difficult subject. Sorry is still the hardest word, but Tesco’s copywriters have managed to turn saying sorry into a PR campaign all by itself.

It’s really quite ingenious from Tesco; neatly diverting attention from the original furore to their tightly penned sonnets of sorrow. But this is a risky strategy and one which could easily backfire. Some of the commenters in the BBC article think Tesco are just creating a little ‘mood music’ as a distraction. Whatever your view, that they’ve got us talking about their apology rather than what they are apologising for, kind of proves the point.

What can we learn from corporate apologies? None of us working in PR and comms actually want to deal with a PR crisis on behalf of a client, but if you find yourself writing a statement of apology would you use it as an opportunity to show off your clever wordsmithing and jot down a couple of haikus? I imagine the answer is no. For multi-billion pound brands like Tesco, they can afford to take the risk, because let’s be honest, very few people are actually going to stop shopping there. Most of us aren’t working for brands with such high equity (hi, Apple!) that what we do or say doesn’t actually matter, so if we do encounter a crisis then taking a risk with reputation is the least likely option. The old adage applies, keep it simple. And as my mum still says to this very day, ‘sorry means you won’t do it again’.

What do you think? Answers in rhyming couplets only below.

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