Why your reputation rests on saying sorry well

Sorry on a post-it note

However tough it is, saying sorry for a mistake is the right thing to do.

When things go wrong, a timely genuine apology can repair reputational damage and restore trust.

It helps if the words are heartfelt and backed up by a commitment to put things right. Comms professionals sometimes describe this as ‘owning a crisis’.

Being sincere. Taking ownership. Committing to putting things right. Learning lessons. We hail these as the steps to reputational redemption, whatever the problem.

But, as we’ve witnessed recently, reality and personality can get in the way of a textbook approach. April saw a spate of missteps followed by apologies, with varying degrees of success. In sharing these examples, we offer no comment on the events which led to the apologies. They speak for themselves and generated miles of copy already.

This is all about the contrition, and how it went down. 

The good, the bad, and the non-existent

We start with former Justice Secretary Dominic Rabb’s combative response to the findings of an investigation into allegations that he bullied civil servants across three departments.

The investigation upheld two claims against him, also finding Mr Raab in breach of the Ministerial Code. His resignation letter and subsequent interviews bore little sense of regret from someone just forced out of office by an investigation they called for.

This is a great example of a ‘non-apology apology’. It says he’s ‘genuinely sorry’ while criticising complainants and warning of a ‘chilling effect’ on the public. While some media reported his departure from office sympathetically, the lack of contrition in his statements is striking and left him open to criticism.

Contrast this with Labour MP Dianne Abbott’s apology following her letter in The Observerwhich stated that groups including Irish, Jewish, and Traveller people experience prejudice, but are not ‘all their lives subject to racism.’

Making a difference

It’s apologetic and it seeks to own the issue. It also raises questions about that initial draft the statement refers to, and how this could find its way to The Observer. And it makes no commitment to repair damage done.

Then, last week, cartoonist Martin Rowson issued a lengthy personal apology for his piece in The Guardian following BBC Chairman Richard Sharp’s resignation.

It stands out from many others that neither own nor even apologise for the failing to which they refer.

Why ‘sorry’ isn’t easy

We’ll never know the full background to events that place people in the eye of a storm. And it’s easier to advise on how to respond than it is to ‘own’ the problem when one’s neck is on the line.

We increasingly see, however, that responding to high profile issues takes careful and empathetic handling. Those in the spotlight should consider taking a step back from legalistic phrases which guard against saying anything that hints at liability. This can lead to the ridiculous “I’m sorry if people felt aggrieved…” non apology.  

And there remains a strong viewpoint that organisations can spin their way out of a crisis. Prepare a statement, stick to the agreed lines and all will be fine, it’s argued. How can we learn from failings if we’re not even prepared to acknowledge them?

Saying sorry when things go wrong is hard. Openness, transparency and commitment to learn and put things right would give damaged reputations a fighting chance of recovering.

Look beyond the next day’s headlines, and it’s clearly the right thing to do.


A version of this post originally appeared in our monthly Distinctive Dispatch newsletter. Sign up for future editions. 

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