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Mea Culpas – From the Heart or Half-Hearted?

The wait to sit on Oprah’s confessional couch seems to get longer each day.

First up is Lance Armstrong, apparently coming clean about decades of denial and performance-enhancing drug use in two “made-for-the-O-network” segments. It’s unclear if the next confession will come from Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te‘o, who apparently either was the victim of an elaborate hoax involving a girlfriend he met online or masterminded a publicity stunt to raise his own profile as a Heisman Trophy candidate and future NFL star. Who knows – if Armstrong’s apology is well received and he is eventually reinstated to athletic competition in some sport, perhaps baseball gambler Pete Rose will like the odds and give Oprah’s couch a try.

Certainly, apologies are not new in the celebrity world. But the lights do seem brighter now with an increasing number of online watchdogs (Deadspin broke the Te‘o story) and the omnipresence of social media to perpetuate even the smallest rumor. Even business leaders are no longer above having to issue an apology, as evidenced by JP MorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon’s very public mea culpa over the firm’s $3 billion loss resulting from derivatives trading last year.

So the question becomes, when does an apology make sense for a company or executive? And what is the best way to deliver an apology so you can get on the road to brand recovery?

Here are a few guidelines:

  • If you decide that an apology is the best course of action, do it without reservation and don’t cut corners. The worst thing any company (or leader) can do is offer a half-hearted apology that no one believes is sincere or one that the legal department has watered down so heavily out of liability concerns that no one can understand what it really means.
  • Get bad news out as soon as you can, and deliver the message yourself with as much detail as you can. In the Te‘o situation, both Te‘o and Notre Dame issued statements and held news conferences talking about their investigation and offering details of what they learned to bolster the case that Te‘o was duped – that he was somehow an unwilling participant in a cruel hoax. We’ll see if that plays out to be true, but certainly their efforts at transparency while demonstrating embarrassment and remorse make him (and the university) appear a more sympathetic character than Armstrong or Rose, who simply tried to cover it all up. 
  • On the flip side, don’t just apologize for anything and everything only because you think that’s what is expected when a customer, shareholder or activist complains. If you’re in the right, and the person/entity is using you to gain publicity or financial advantage, stick to your guns and make clear why you acted in the manner you did or why you have the policy you do.
  • Don’t wait too long before deciding on a course of action. If you’re going to make an apology, do it promptly. Waiting until you “see how things go” waters down an apology’s effectiveness, while one that is decisive and prompt carries greater weight and as such helps achieve the important objective of minimizing brand damage and shortening the news cycle. In the Armstrong and Rose cases, the story became as much about their trail of deception, vehement denials and counter accusations as it was about the rules they broke in the first place. Don’t let it get that far down the road, and remember that adding lies on top of lies simply isn’t going to work in the long run.
  • Possible legal liability or arrogance/hubris are not good reasons to avoid an apology. Legal considerations are important, but so is brand equity. If your customers turn on you because they think you should apologize but you don’t because you’re afraid of getting sued, you’ll suffer financially anyway. Get some smart lawyers to work with your PR team to help you find a solution, not to stand in the way. Same goes for arrogance and hubris. Find someone you trust who will judge you honestly and ask their opinion of what you should do – if offering an apology is obvious to them, then it should be obvious to you.

For more information, please contact Matt Barkett, managing director in Dix & Eaton’s Crisis Communications Group, at (216) 241-3073 or via email at mbarkett@dix-eaton.com.

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