Eden Gillott is active in the Los Angeles chapter of Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO)'s business Accelerator program, which empowers entrepreneurs with the tools, community and accountability necessary to aggressively grow and master their businesses. As president of Gillott Communications, a crisis PR and bankruptcy communications firm, Eden helps companies protect reputations and build trust. As the author of A Business Owner's Guide to Crisis PR: Protecting You & Your Business' Reputation, we asked Eden how leaders in crisis can apologize after they've said or done the wrong thing. Here's what she shared:
Did you know that the holiday season brings a spike in people saying or doing things that result in unexpected PR crises? In 2020, the added stress of Covid-19 and political division may increase this unexpected seasonal consequence. That means more people than ever may need to make authentic apologies.
Why is it that many companies and their leaders communicate so poorly after a PR blunder?
We often hear, "Oh my gosh! Did you hear what so-and-so did? Their Instagram is blowing up!" Or, "I can't believe so-and-so said that! It's all over the internet. What they were thinking?"
What we say and do is broadcast and documented online. The very platforms we leverage to build our brands--TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook Live--are the same ones that end up causing us the most trouble. Traditional crisis communications statements don't cut it on these platforms. You must adapt while maintaining your authenticity. If your audience is accustomed to seeing videos from you, but you issue a written statement instead, they'll wonder what's up.
Here are four steps for creating an authentic and effective video apology.
1. Manage the Stress
Most people who land themselves in hot water are a mixture of panicked, terrified, remorseful, and sleep-deprived. It can be extremely lonely and isolating when you're thrust into the spotlight. The stress can be too much for one person to handle. Your initial instinct may be to rush and post a video apology immediately before the situation gets worse, but doing so may have the opposite effect. Resist that urge and take a moment to breathe. Your business partners and family are typically too close to the situation and too emotionally and financially invested to offer unbiased advice. Gather a team who can provide an outside perspective, calmly assess the situation, and devise a solid strategy.
2. Manage the Fallout
There's a basic crisis PR formula to follow, regardless of what caused the fallout you're facing:
- Establish a goal.
- Get the facts.
- Formulate a strategy.
- Craft messaging that's reassuring.
- Monitor the situation.
- Be ready to pivot.
3. Manage the Message
Videos empower companies to communicate with their audiences on a very personal and direct level. We feel closer to and more invested in the companies we follow online. Think how easy it is to tell when a close friend starts acting weird. It can feel like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Similarly, when the person or company apologizing completely changes how they communicate, followers can sense that something feels "off." Telltale signs include unrecognizable personality traits, complex sentence structure, or a robotic "scripted" cadence.
Ideally, you want to strike a balance between sounding ultra-polished and being completely extemporaneous. It's okay--and sometimes even desirable--to show a bit of vulnerability, even if a cornerstone of your brand is to remain perfectly on-message. You can still "be real" while avoiding basic crisis PR pitfalls.
To achieve this balance, use guideposts instead of a script. When you know where you're headed and how you'd like to get there, guideposts will eliminate (or at least reduce the chance of) tangents. It's also helpful to read up on the strategy for structuring apologies.
There's been an increase in people issuing multiple apologies when audiences seem dissatisfied with their previous apology attempts. Remember: There will always be people online who aren't your target market and who will happily tell you how you could have done better. Ignore them. Instead, focus on the people who matter the most to you.
If your target audience is still upset, assess whether your apology simply missed the mark or whether you have an underlying problem to deal with. If the issue is about how your company operates, determine how to realign with the market. In general, though, unless you have something meaningful to add, don't issue multiple apologies.
4. Manage the Future
Performative apologies and behavior ring hollow. People's BS radar is pretty good. If you aren't genuine, you'll get called out. Think about the many companies that came under fire for PR campaigns that feigned support for Black Lives Matter.
Brand and career-ending events depend on many factors: Your reputation beforehand. How badly you messed up. Whether your road to redemption is genuine. Your ability to stomach the consequences of your actions.
Several brands, influencers, and YouTubers have apologized after receiving social media backlash and then chosen to leave platforms or close their businesses altogether after their apologies weren't well-received. While you can't expect to please everyone, sometimes it makes the most business and personal sense to step away. This is typically the case for businesses that represent one of several projects or brands in a portfolio, and continuing the controversy would risk damaging the others.
In the end, it boils down to trust. Once you lose trust, it's tough to regain.