One of the most difficult communications challenges is an institutional apology.
Often we are told not to say we're "sorry" on behalf of an organization if we can get around it, for example by expressing "regret" at an outcome from this problem or that. But sometimes there's no getting around it – lives have been seriously affected by an incident, and a sincere and heartfelt apology is not only in order, it is essential.
So, how do you handle an organizational apology? If it's pro forma because lawyers have combed over every word, it will read and sound like a legal brief and lack any conviction in the eyes and ears of the intended audience. If it's off-the-cuff, it may result in a misstep like BP CEO Anthony Heyward injecting "I'd like my life back" into his public apology for the massive Gulf Oil spill, a now-infamous remark that caused him and BP more harm than good.
Pure Performance Communications CEO Deirdre Breakenridge lays out three essential criteria for an effective mea culpa in her blog item Anatomy of An Apology: Tone and Intent, Delivery, and Actions. All three must be calibrated perfectly for an apology to ring true.
At CommCore, we concur. If you don't feel it, can't deliver it to your target audience quickly via multiple channels, and can't back an apology up with substantive remedial actions, you likely have an institutional problem that is larger than any specific communication challenge. And we believe responsibility for that lies with the face of the organization – the CEO as Communicator-in-Chief.
If he or she can't step up to the plate convincingly and effectively, any apology will likely be seen as a sorry excuse for one.