Crisis management is certainly a hot topic right now. Every day I am invited to crisis management webinars (which tend to be sales pitches with some aspects of crisis management). What worries me is that many of these webinars are a series of “best practices” based on prescriptive (what you should do) advice that is not grounded in any theory or research. Agencies that make blanket recommendations like this should not be in your network of knowledge.
I have been a scholar of crises and crisis communication for over 20 years. I have published many articles and taught numerous undergraduate and graduate courses. Understanding crisis and behavioral science provide for better management and protective practices. And much of what is prescribed is not consistent with the research.
This post is specifically about whether an organization should apologize for an event or a perception of an event as its crisis management protocols. If you did indeed do something wrong, an apology is quite necessary. But it is insufficient in deliberate wrongdoing events. Apologies are a dime a dozen. We tend to apologize for everything these days. The apology statement carries little weight. If you do something wrong, you need to go beyond the apology – you need to accept responsibility, acknowledge the wrong-doing, and be prepared to accept the consequences.
The webinar that launched this post recommended that an organization should always apologize, and that the apology should be expressed as regret. The apology was also said to not admit guilt. This is not true. And regret is not the same as an apology.
I have been on the receiving end of many apologies with no expression of regret or corrective behavior moving forward. Apology statements are empty rhetoric. Do not apologize for something beyond your control.
The crisis literature is clear that in any situation, an organization should show compassion and concern – regardless of responsibility. This is sound advice. People are deeply impacted by crisis events. The situation is not about you – it is about the affected stakeholders. They do not want your reputation management efforts. They want to know what happened and how to deal with the crisis situation. Then you can work on protecting your brand. However, if you did not do anything wrong, an apology statement opens up many other complications legally. And poorly managed crisis communication efforts often lead to even greater crises built upon your response rather that which caused the crisis. These become much more difficult to manage.
The best recommendation to crisis prevention is to not do anything that puts you in the crisis situation. Yet, crises are inevitable, and you should always plan for such events. As much as we hate to think about bad things, bad things do and will happen. It is a matter of when, not if. The worst time to begin thinking about crisis planning is in the middle of the crisis.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it is quite possible to manage and grow a business without understanding business. But you cannot protect your business or reputation if you do not understand business and human behavior.