The Apology: It's Complicated
In the last week, Prime Minister Trudeau refused to apologize for his role in the SNC-Lavalin affair, while TELUS apologized in several ways for the email outage that affected thousands of its customers. Neither strategy really worked.
Apologies by politicians and big corporations are tricky things. Sometimes they work, but sometimes they don't. There are so many factors, so using an apology as a PR strategy, or refusing to apologize for that matter, can both be risky.
In many cases, an apology is just the first thing that voters and consumers want, not the only thing.
Responsibility, But No Apology
A few years ago, I was speaking to a group of municipal leaders. Most of them were Mayors and Councillors from cities and towns across Alberta. I was speaking about ways to respond to everything from a bit of bad news to a full-blown crisis.
I remember saying a politician or business leader needs to take responsibility, apologize, promise to do better and suggest how they’ll change, so it doesn’t happen again. During the question and answer period that followed, a woman in the audience said she thinks there have been too many apologies and they don’t mean as much as they used to. I agreed with her.
Then a man on the other side of the room went a step further. He said the apology is only as good as the person it’s coming from. That’s true too. I thought that statement was pretty deep and accurate. I remember thinking to myself that I wished I would have said it.
We’re now a week removed from Canada’s Ethics Commissioner reporting that Prime Minister Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act during the SNC-Lavalin affair.
That led to Trudeau with his now infamous “I take full responsibility, but I won’t apologize” defence. For the last week he’s been hammered for taking that position as one critic after another has wondered how a politician can take full responsibility for doing something as important as violating the Conflict of Interest Act, but refuses to apologize for it.
Maybe you can also judge a lack of an apology from the person it’s coming from now as well.
The day after the Ethics Commissioner’s report came out, TELUS ran into a huge technical and PR mess when thousands of people in Alberta and BC lost email service.
Upset TELUS customers flooded social media with complaints about a lack of an explanation from TELUS. The situation got worse as TELUS reported a day or two later that it had restored service to a vast majority of users. That led to another assault on social media from users still without email service, or who now had service back but TELUS had lost their emails during the outage. It was reported there were still TELUS customers without email service yesterday.
Saturday evening, TELUS released a pre-recorded video from its Chief Customer Officer Tony Geheran, who apologized for the mess.
The video did little to stem the tide of angry social media posts. Some people complained that Geheran seemed to be reading from a script, reducing the apology’s effectiveness.
I felt this video was similar to the Maple Leaf video of CEO Michael McCain after people had died in the listeria crisis several years ago. As Geheran spoke, I could almost hear McCain’s voice.
However, this was a classic case of an apology that didn’t work. Maybe it came too late, maybe it was too rehearsed, or perhaps it was simply that people were so pissed off they didn’t have email for three days by then that they didn’t want to listen to an apology.
Email is a funny thing. Many people complain about getting too much email, but when they don’t get any, they’re really upset. Perhaps less is more, but getting none is a real problem.
The Apology - When and How?
So what’s right? When should an apology be made, how should it be done, who should make it and what should they say?
These are all great questions and the reality is there are no two situations that are exactly the same. Crisis communication experts make a lot of money by writing thick binders that talk about specific steps that need to be taken during a crisis, but the problem with that is, no two situations are the same.
A crisis communications plan is a great roadmap to follow, but it needs the expertise of a solid communications professional to navigate the company through choppy waters.
It’s my belief that smart PR people are worth their weight in gold in a time of crisis and I think they understand when an apology should be issued and how it should be done. Too often though managers don’t want to apologize because it’s a clear indication of failure. That’s why apologies come too late and don’t seem real.
Consumers will judge TELUS on how it performed for a week in August and what it will do from now on. Voters will judge Trudeau and the Liberals by what happens between now and October 21. The country will be watching. Closely.
What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the Commentary section below.