When and how should a business apologise for wrongdoings or mishaps?

This question was posed at “Sorry? Corporate apologies in an age of transparency”, an event organised by the CIPR’s Corporate and Financial and Greater London groups last week.

To my surprise, the panellists – a comms director, a lawyer, and a campaigner – reached a consensus almost immediately: apologies are good, even necessary.

To their credit, the panellists emphasised the ethical implications of an apology.

I’ve discussed previously the idea of the “performative utterance“. These are speech acts that go beyond mere speech to become actions in themselves. Genuine apologies can be performative utterances: they’re proven to help the healing and reconciliation process for victims.

In such instances, it is the comms professional’s ethical responsibility to assist.

Apologies and the Law

I had expected more wrangling about corporate responsibility, particularly from the legal perspective.

One example discussed was Thomas Cook’s response to children killed by a gas leak at one of its hotels. The company’s eventual response was described by the Evening Standard as “gruesomely legalistic” in how it dodged an apology to avoid admitting any liability.

However, my key takeaway from the session was that, in law, an apology is not necessarily an admission of liability. Various people in the room were surprised to hear this. It seems that there is a misconception, even among some lawyers, that the moment a company apologises for an accident, it admits liability and the ensuing legal process.

My attention was drawn to the 2006 Compensation Act, which states in Part 1.2:

An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty.

It’s worth noting that the above may not apply across different jurisdictions. Scotland, for example, has a separate Apology Act, which raises the important question of authenticity. Even so, it’s good to know that the law allows for these necessary displays of human empathy.

How to Apologise

Some of the more practical guidance on how to issue a corporate apology was as follows:

  • Demonstrate positive action;
  • Keep calm but respond in good time;
  • Choose the most appropriate spokesperson, which isn’t necessarily the CEO;
  • Avoid jargon (as for any PR material) but ensure that lawyers and insurers have signed-off the apology’s wording.

For more information on why it is important for a business to apologise when necessary, take a look at the Apology Clause.

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