PR’s Role in the Public Apology

It happens all the time:  the public apology. The latest mea culpa comes from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who during his State of the State address Tuesday apologized for the Flint water crisis. Snyder repeatedly said he was sorry and promised to fix the situation in Flint, where elevated lead levels were discovered in kids after state officials ignored warnings about the city water system, according to numerous reports. Flint families, the governor said, “deserve accountability (and) to know that the buck stops here, with me.”

In the last several years the public apology has proliferated at a rapid clip. Public apologies have become so ubiquitous that people tend not to take them too seriously. (We particularly like the suggestion from the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay to start The Apology Channel, whose ratings no doubt would go through the roof.)

Nonetheless, when facing a growing crisis government and public officials, corporate executives, celebrities and professional athletes resort to the public apology to try and cauterize the wound.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean the problem will go away. PR pros and communicators have a crucial role to play in providing counsel on whether a public apology is appropriate.

Here’s a few tips to consider:

  • Weight the odds. As much as it seems a panacea, is a public apology the best plan to right the ship? Have you mapped out how your various stakeholders will respond to the apology? Sincerity, or a lack thereof, can be interpreted one million ways. Do you risk making a lousy situation worse? For example, state workers told USA Today that Synder’s apology was an “insult” and compared Snyder to Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of Iraq, who gassed his own citizens, because “Synder opened the door for (Flint families) to be poisoned.” Sometimes, getting an official or business executive out of his or her comfort zone to have what likely will be some very unpleasant meetings with stakeholders is a more effective strategy than a public apology.
  • Don’t be a weasel. If you have concluded that a public apology is the way to go, advise your client to keep it clean, meaning make sure the person who delivers the apology doesn’t couch it any way to make it sound less like an apology and more like a verbal chore. When public apologies backfire it’s often because stakeholders think they’re hearing a phony sentiment and not the real deal. If a public apology is going to resonate with stakeholders, it has to be unfettered and without mystery.
  • Work the follow-up. A public apology is not the culmination of a crisis-management strategy but often the beginning of one. That’s because a public apology often involves telling people what, specifically, you’re going to do to remedy a bad situation. If your boss or client fails to keep his or her word stemming from the apology, the official or executive will get barbecued by the media and the public alike. Use the apology as a marketing vehicle to take you where you want to go with the communications strategy. Don’t get derailed. Stick with it. Ultimately, PR pros can drive the effort to instill additional protocols to make sure the problem that caused the mess in the first place has little chance of happening again.

What would you add to the list?