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Why You Shouldn't Bother Apologizing After a High-Profile Mistake

No matter how sincere, your mea culpas can come off sounding empty. Only by taking the right action can you repair your broken reputation.
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What do the likes of Lululemon's Chip Wilson, baseball legend Pete Rose, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, and Hollywood actor Mel Gibson have in common?

They all apologized in the immediate aftermath of a personal crisis. In fact, obstinate Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling notwithstanding, the CEO/celebrity apology has become such a staple in the crisis-management playbook that I believe it's lost all its credibility. In short, we don't buy apologies anymore.

So if an apology doesn't hold water, what should you do if you find yourself caught making fun of weight-challenged women, betting on baseball, blaming sick babies for the high cost of health care, or uttering anti-Semitic remarks?

My Lululemon moment

Before I provide a sure-fire remedy, I must provide my relevant credentials. You see, I once wrote a blog post that not only offended military veterans and the surviving family members of slain journalists, but also appeared on the front page of my industry's trade journal for two successive weeks!

You can find the original post here. But suffice it to say, while my intentions and copy may have been misconstrued, I was in deep personal trouble and a competitor was calling every one of my clients telling them to fire my firm. Talk about a heart-stopping moment.

After the initial shock wore off, I wrote a new post. Rather than apologize, though, I clarified my intent. I also pledged to implement a new internal editorial review board at my company that would vet my copy before it ever saw the light of day. And I followed through with the effort.

The tempest in a teapot died down, and my new systems and procedures have prevented any further missteps on my part. (Note: that last comment is correct as of 10 a.m. EDT, June 10, 2014.)

Your new crisis response guide

But enough about me. Here's what to do if you say or do something egregious enough to warrant local, industry, or (gasp) national publicity.

Go ahead and apologize. But move on immediately to:

  • Explain why you said or did what you said or did. And try not to blame an Oxycontin addiction. Hold yourself accountable.
  • Explain what new systems or procedures you're installing as soon as possible to assure whatever it was that happened won't happen again.
  • If the first two steps don't tamp down the crisis, enlist the support of a valued and credible third-party ambassador who will speak on your behalf. This could range from a top industry official to a highly respected local politician (thought that's an oxymoron if I've ever heard one). Have the official speak to your contributions to the community. If that doesn't work, enlist support from the head of a charity, nonprofit, or church group you've supported financially. In this situation, it's critical to make sure your ambassador is properly prepared and can deliver a consistent message.
  • Worst-case scenario, be prepared to fall on your sword and resign. If he still had his wits about him, Donald Sterling would have bowed out immediately. Ditto Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and erstwhile New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey. I'll bet if given a second chance, they all would have stepped down ASAP.

Whatever you do, do not expect an apology to suffice. We live in a jaded, cynical society that has had its fill of abusive priests, corrupt business executives, and drug-abusing athletes. So truly, a modern crisis means never having to say you're sorry. It means more than that: fixing your act, stat, and communicating the fixes as they're accomplished in an attempt to reestablish the image and reputation you've just destroyed.

Last updated: Jun 12, 2014

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian, and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top-tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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