Remember the Oscars blunder from 2017? The one when Warren Beatty ended up with the wrong "Best Film" envelope and announced the wrong winner? That was the handiwork of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) -- the same firm that handled Oscars ballots for years.
The gaffe was, of course, embarrassing for a company that touts its unfailing precision. All was not lost, however; almost immediately after the mistake, they issued a public apology, thanking the Academy for its graceful handling of the situation and promising to conduct a thorough investigation.
But their apology missed the mark.
While PwC had two clearly identifiable point people for overseeing the ballot operation on Oscar night, their apology was signed opaquely as "PwC." It felt somewhat like a hand-scrawled note tacked to the locked front door of the PwC offices. You could almost imagine C-levels behind it scrambling to sort out the mistake.
There was no personal element to the apology, and that was disappointing.
Too often, CEOs forget that they are the living, breathing face of a company. It's a hard role to play, no question, but play it they must. Indeed, the public doesn't come to know and trust an inanimate, amorphous entity that supplies them products or services. They know people -- more specifically, they know the person at the helm whose vision guides the company.
This is why a personal apology is so critical when companies stumble.
Here's a very recent example of this in action:
In early 2020, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan issued a public apology for the videoconferencing tool's shoddy security. He quickly affirmed that the company was working to fix the problems so many were facing.
Yuan did two things right here: He went on news networks to be the face of the company and take ownership of the problem. He also explained what the company was doing to fix it.
It can be argued that Yuan's added details about a drastically increased user base -- as partial explanation for the security problems -- was unhelpful. Most people don't care about your woes, they just want to know you're fixing their problems.
Still, he helped shore up the company's footing when confidence was wavering and stocks threatening to tumble. Thanks to his leadership -- and his personal address following Zoom's security issues -- the company restabilized.
There's a clear lesson here. CEOs should make their apologies personal while keeping messaging succinct and proactive.
To make this more actionable, consider these nine tips for making your public apology successful:
1. Apologize publicly.
Take things public when there is a company policy or process that has detrimentally affected more individuals than you can apologize to one-on-one. Otherwise, apologize directly to those affected.
2. Make it personal.
Use "I" -- don't hide behind the company name. The damage caused has both professional and personal implications, so respond as a professional individual. Remember: You are the face of your company.
3. Don't play victim.
Don't complain about the impact of the error on you personally or on your company. This undercuts public trust.
4. Don't start rumors.
Mention concisely that you are initiating investigations into how and why the error happened. Do not speculate in public forums.
5. Don't point fingers.
Don't cast blame on others. Scapegoating reveals a weak ethical backbone.
6. Remind people about your brand and values.
Reaffirm your company's commitment to the customer and to quality products and services.
7. Don't blame external change.
Do not attempt to excuse your error with notes about a dramatic increase or decrease in business. The public holds you accountable for your company's actions in all circumstances; they just want to know you're fixing what's broken.
8. Don't crack jokes.
Avoid humor in your apology. The public wants to know you're sincere, not that you have a great sense of humor.
9. Remember to say thank you.
Thank the public for their patience and trust. Remember that you are speaking both to customers and to potential future customers.
Mostly, be solutions-focused in your personal approach. When investigations into your error have been completed, share details about company changes that will benefit customers and preclude future mistakes.
Also, when possible and appropriate, tie your solutions back into your company vision and mission -- underscoring your integrity and commitment to responsibility.