Public Apology 101

Mistakes happen. We get it.

We hope they don’t, but when they do, leaders need to know how to react effectively. The problem is, so often public apologies get botched. Every year we hear about them. More than a few (like this, and this, and this) have landed on our Top 10 Worst Communicators list. And in the last two weeks, the CEOs of Starbucks, Allegiant and Facebook have all been in the spotlight and issued an apology or “personal statement.”

When things go south, it’s the job of the CEO or leader to own it, apologize and connect with their audience (customers) to overcome it. First with emotion, then with the facts.

As you’ve heard us say before – people buy on emotion and justify with fact. People respond emotionally whether they believe you or not (or whether they buy it, or not) – and that’s got nothing to do with the facts. That’s what makes communicating with empathy so critical – especially when we’re in apology mode.

So, how do we do that? Here’s the five-step how-to guide for Apology 101:

1. Know your audience. What do they care about? Understand what they need from you, and give it to them! Whether that’s reassurance, an apology or (most likely) both. Consider their Point of View and respond with humility.
2. Be plain-spoken. Ditch the script (if you can). As we’ve shared, before, scripts are the number one killer of authenticity (like we saw with Tiger Woods). Think conversational, concrete words. Simple sentences. And pause between them to let it soak in. This will help you come across authentically and sincerely.
3. Show that you care. What I mean by this is, physically display your empathy. When what you say doesn’t match how you look or sound, there’s an inconsistent message. Even a little emotion goes a long way. Have some variety in your vocal tones to keep you from sounding robotic and maintain strong eye communication so you connect with your listeners.
4. Act quickly. Respond within a day or two, max. If you don’t, too much time has gone by and the damage is (probably) already done.
5. Don’t defend what happened. Apologies are not the time to be smug or defensive. Acknowledge the facts and position what can change moving forward.

These apology pillars also work well for one-on-one apologies, at work or in your personal life. ;)

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