Saying sorry in a crisis: Is it really the hardest word to say?

British Airways and TSB have become the high profile casualties of the corporate crisis, attracting heavy scrutiny and criticism for their attempts to say sorry.

Paul Pester, the former CEO of TSB, ended up apologising five times before resigning over his firm’s handling of IT issues at the bank – or seven times if you included the mentions in the press release, James Moore jibed in the Independent.  Meanwhile Alex Cruz, British Airways CEO, admirably felt the need to apologise on the Today programme as he sought to appease angry customers frustrated by BA’s response to a data breach.

Both cases reawakened the fractious debate over the best way to apologise when things go seriously wrong. With CEO or without? Quick response with limited information or slower with more?  Personal tone or more corporate? Open and honest or a more measured tone in case of legal liability?

To continue the debate I spoke to a select group of highly experienced Corporate Affairs Directors and Lawyers for their views on the best way to say sorry.

Alex Cole, Chief Brand and Corporate Affairs Officer, BUPA:

“There is a difference between ‘I’ and ‘we’. Apologies from the organisation as a whole or a spokesperson don’t feel as meaningful as the heartfelt willingness to say I’m sorry.

A specific apology beats blanket platitudes. Think about who you are apologising to and what for. Apologise most to the people directly affected and do it in in the way they would most like it.

Actions speak louder than words. Anyone can say sorry. The key thing is a commitment to put it right.”

Paul Moore, Group Communications and Corporate Affairs Director, ITV:

“If your organisation has done something wrong, which has let down your customers, I don’t think you can say sorry enough. 

Whilst many people are worried about legal liability, the bigger tension from a communications perspective is the speed at which traditional and social media are reporting a situation is well ahead of your ability to work out what has happened, because that can often take days or weeks to really get to the bottom of. 

A CEO is expected to be out there explaining a few hours after a situation has emerged, which can be very difficult, but saying what you can, when you can and being open and honest and, most importantly, getting on the front foot in a very co-ordinated way is critical.”

Rachel Atkins, Partner, Schillings:

“In the real world, companies need to find a way to say sorry, without saying ‘here is a blank cheque’. Saying sorry for the situation is not the same as an admission that you messed up and will pay millions of pounds in compensation.”

Jeremy Drew, Partner, RPC

“A personal, authentic apology often works best – an apology which is delivered in the name of a company or institution doesn’t have quite the same impact – it risks sounding like one of those begrudging tannoy apologies at a railway station.”

“There is a danger that the lawyer can get in the way of crisis response if they take an unduly defensive or cautious approach. You’d be hard pushed to find an occasion when saying sorry about what had happened backfired and was the wrong thing to do. Of course there is a risk in doing so, but doing business is risky full stop. You don’t get out of a difficult situation by being frozen by fear and doing nothing.”

Matt Himsworth, Founder Director, Himsworth Scott

“The corporate apology can be a strange beast – often they suffer from too many people weighing in with too many concerns which can leave the language feeling quite strangled and insincere. In the worst cases this can mean organisations having to redo their apologies, which becomes even worse. From a legal perspective there is a always a way to give a meaningful apology without need to worry about liability, but typically the most important step is showing an understanding of what went wrong and a credible plan to make it good and avoid it happening again.”