Recently, I read an interesting piece by health columnist Jancee Dunn in The New York Times about delivering an effective apology to someone you may have harmed. 

Dunn’s piece made me think about my own work as a corporate spokesperson. I’ve delivered a lot of apologies on behalf of corporations, and I’ve had many years to experience when the apology landed successfully – and maybe more importantly – when it backfired. 

There is an art to delivering an effective public mea culpa that I learned over my career and happily share with our clients today. 


Why apologize publicly in the first place?

Ideally, voluntary public apologies express remorse, acknowledge the harm experienced, offer ways to rectify or remedy a situation and deliver a commitment to avoid or prevent a similar situation from happening again. They are the difference between keeping a loyal customer and losing your biggest assets. 

But the apology has to be genuine if it’s going to work. 

We’ve all been on the receiving end of excuses or apologies that felt disingenuous: I’m sorry if you feel bad. 

They don’t help. And they can even make things worse. 

Sadly, corporate apologies often fail to meet any standard of decency or authenticity – if they ever come at all. They often come long after people experienced the harm, and when the corporation’s reputation is in tatters – making the apology appear self-serving. 


Legal and Comms should work together.

Corporations aren’t a bunch of uncaring souls, in my experience. And neither are the legal teams whose advice often delays or suppresses a corporate apology, as it could be interpreted as admitting liability. Organizations task lawyers with their protection and limit future awards if there’s a lawsuit. In short, lawyers are doing their jobs. 

As a spokesperson, I often heard lawyers caution against an apology, which risk-averse leaders quickly accepted. 

That’s why I advise all corporations to give their senior communications advisors a seat at the table. Communications advisors have their ears to the ground, can tell the ‘higher ups’ how the crisis is impacting reputation, and can create a plan to steer through. It’s their job to offer strategies that protect against reputational harm – even if those go against legal. After all, reputational harm can end up costing far more in the long run.  

All corporate communications staff worth their salt should actively work with their legal advisors when sensitive matters arrive. So, CEOs must bring them to those key decision-making tables.

Over the years, as I built my own credibility within organizations, leaders learned the value of the apology in protecting their reputation and keeping their customers happy. We found ways to make everyone comfortable with how we delivered our apologies.  


Here are 5 tips I offer every client needing to deliver a successful public apology. 

1. The sooner, the better

Deliver the apology as quickly as possible. The sooner you give an apology, the sooner you limit the harm and reputational damage. Silence will only compound the damage.

2. Limit your words, and listen

The more you babble, the more it’s going to sound like excuses, rationalizations, or justifications. I know your commute was really long and uncomfortable today, but the tornado was beyond our control.  Of course, the tornado was beyond your control. No need to say that. Keep all ‘but’s out of the apology. And remember to listen more than you talk. 

3. No qualifications

If your apology has an ‘if’ in it, you’ve blown the exercise. I’m sorry if you’re feeling harmed. The “I’m-sorry-if” abdicates any responsibility and places it all on the hurt party. 

Also, avoid telling people how to feel or assume what they are feeling. I’m sure you are feeling disappointed, but you shouldn’t. There’s an art to being compassionate and empathic without presuming how people are feeling. Focus on the impact.

4. Forget forgiveness

Typically, personal and public apologies come with an “ask for forgiveness,” which I believe is presumptive and self-centred. People will be more likely to forgive you if you mean what you say and do what you mean. Show remorse, but keep your hopes to yourself. Put the right actions in place, and you will earn that forgiveness. 

5. Accountability matters

Corporations must deliver apologies with an action plan — a way to compensate people. Even if that plan isn’t fully baked in the early days, talking about it right away shows you are taking responsibility. And remember to keep your audience updated on the progress or details of your action plan as they emerge. 

However, these tips fall short if your organization doesn’t have a crisis communications plan that all leaders know like the back of their hands – which takes time and investment. 

If your organization doesn’t have a plan, hasn’t practiced it, or needs help steering out of a reputational crisis, external expertise can help. These communications experts can create a crisis communications guide for leadership, deliver results from social listening tools, and give expert advice on delivering an apology that lands with your audience. 

Remember: to err is human, but failure to acknowledge the harm can be unforgivable.


If your organization would benefit from our expertise in issues management, get in touch. We’d be happy to help you steer through to the other side.