At sixes and sevens over saying ‘sorry’

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

Saying sorry has been in the news with scientists saying that they have found the secret to the perfect apology.

Deciding to say ‘sorry’ is one of the most important strategic decisions facing an organisation in a crisis situation.  To the outside observer it often appears a simple decision to make but any communicator with a few war stories under their belt knows that it is not as easy as that.  News out in the past few days is that scientists have discovered how to make the perfect apology in six steps beginning with an expression of regret and finishing with a request for forgiveness.   Shouldn’t such science help us communicators make the case to senior management that there is an easy and proven way to put things right?

I would suggest it might be more useful for us to refer to another process with several steps.  Namely the seven stages of grief.   When a crisis hits an organisation we need to understand how senior management quickly find themselves out of their normal comfort zone.  The usual rules of decision-making have been suspended.  It is no good calling for more facts, there are very few.  It is no good setting up a standing committee to investigate and report back with options next month – the organisation is in meltdown now.  Former supporters are asking difficult questions and detractors now have an audience and a platform.  The result is to put the leadership team under immense psychological stress which has been likened by crisis academics to grief.

As the seven stages of grief suggests the initial response to stress of this kind is shock, denial and pain.  You can almost see the Chief Executive pacing the floor struggling to face up to what has happened or seeking to deny its importance or significance.  The next stage is anger: how dare they after all the efforts we have made and progress we have seen.   This is when you get to see some really poor decision making.  There may be a concentration on finding out who leaked the document rather than dealing with the fact that what is in the document is true.  Or we may see a shoot the messenger approach – it’s all the fault of the media so let’s not deal with them anymore.

If the team survive all that they may lapse into reflection or in the corporate world: analysis paralysis.  Let’s get some more views on what has happened, let’s gather some more facts.  But as we know in a 24/7 global news cycle what we say right now this minute can be make or break in terms of limiting reputational damage.  Reflection is a luxury we don’t have.  When it comes to saying ‘sorry’ one opinion senior leaders are bound to look for is that of the legal department but as we know a risk averse legal department may see only the downsides of this approach.   It is up to the communications team to keep the organisation focussed on the need to lay the foundations for future reputational repair.

Seven stages of grief helps us understand why senior management teams in crisis-hit organisations often do not do or delay what appears to us to be the obvious thing to do and say sorry.  Understanding the crisis-mindset in this way helps us empathise and see part of our role in a crisis is to guide the organisation into focussing on the value at stake and making the right decisions.  However, psychologists say getting people into the latter stages of coping with profound shock  i.e.  acceptance, reconstruction and hope can take weeks, months or even years.  In a crisis we communicators will be very lucky to have 60 minutes.