How to apologise effectively during a crisis media management incident

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How to apologise effectively during a PR crisis

There has been no shortage of apologies lately.

Airlines, tech companies, sportswear manufacturers, soft drink companies and tourist attractions are among those who have said ‘sorry’ recently.

Some have been really strong, while others have actually managed to make the crisis worse.

So what makes an apology effective?

Here we outline ten things you need to focus on when you say sorry.

Respond quickly: If something has gone wrong you need to act quickly and the faster you respond the more control you will have over the story. This is particularly true on social media where reputations can be quickly damaged. It shows you are aware of the situation, are taking it seriously and it will prevent the spread of rumour and speculation.

Put the apology first in your media statements: Sorry should be the first thing which is said in any crisis media management statements or interviews. It shows that your customers are upmost in your thoughts, you understand the severity of what has happened and the impact it has had. All too often we see apologies which are included right at the end of statements – almost as an afterthought.

'Sorry should be the first thing which is said in any crisis statements or interviews' via @mediafirstltd

Ensure the apology sounds authentic and sincere: If you are going to say sorry, it needs to look like you really mean it. People will know when you are not being sincere. Phrases like ‘deeply sorry’ and ‘deep regret’ can be really powerful, but the language used should be something both the organisation and its spokespeople are comfortable with. At the other end of the scale ‘we apologise for any inconvenience caused’ – a phrase used by train companies to tell passengers about the latest delay – sounds like something an organisation thinks it should say, rather than something it genuinely feels. Similarly ‘if we offended anyone’ implies an organisation is not completely convinced it has done something wrong, or could be seen as an attempt to play down the significance of what has happened.

A recent apology which stood out for me as appearing genuine, was issued by Adidas. After the Boston Marathon in April, it sent a congratulatory email about ‘surviving’ the marathon, not really thinking about the terrorist incident at the event four years ago. It’s apology said: “We are incredibly sorry. Clearly, there was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. We deeply apologise for our mistake.”


Show what action you are taking to resolve the issue: An effective apology goes beyond just saying sorry and outlines what has already been done and what is going to happen to resolve the incident. This was something American Airlines did really well when it recently found itself in the media spotlight. A video went viral showing the moments after a woman had been allegedly struck by a child’s push chair and an altercation had broken out between another passenger and a member of staff.

'An effective crisis apology will show what action you are taking to resolve the incident' via @mediafirstltd

In a statement we learnt that the woman and her family had been upgraded to first class for the duration of their trip and the member of staff involved in the incident had been ‘removed from duty’ while an investigation was carried out.

Don't over promise

It can be tempting when you apologise to say something bold along the lines of ‘this will not happen again’. But we would advise against saying anything which could prove difficult to live up to or make you a hostage to fortune.

Reassure your customers: Your apology needs to put the incident in context and show it is isolated. If the incident centres around an accident, for example, talk about the safety protocols you have in place and your previously good record. This was a regular message put forward by Merlin Entertainment when managing the media following a serious crash on a rollercoaster at Alton Towers.

Don’t make excuses or try to blame others: The blame game is never a good idea in an apology. The audience – your customers – do not want to hear it and it has the potential to make your crisis much worse. Look back again at the United Airlines incident. The airlines first response said a customer had ‘refused to leave an aircraft voluntarily’ and then, in an internal email, Chief Executive Oscar Munoz, described the passenger as ‘disruptive and belligerent’. These actions only served to intensify the crisis. When internet star PewDiePie issued a video apology for making anti-Semetic jokes which saw him lose deals with Disney and YouTube, he spent much of the time blaming the media for taking his comments ‘out of context’. The result? Another round of damaging news stories.

'Blaming others during a crisis has the potential to make the situation much worse' via @mediafirstltd

Ensure your apology does not look like marketing material: This was a mistake made by London Dungeon earlier this year. When its ‘Dark valentine’ campaign backfired amid allegation of sexism and misogyny it issued a very brief apology using exactly the same branding. It meant the apology looked like an extension of the marketing campaign rather than a complaint which was being taken seriously.


Avoid corporate / boardroom language: This was another failing of the first attempt at an apology from United Airlines, where the phrase ‘re-accommodate’ was deemed to be a good way to describe what had happened to a passenger being dragged along the aisle of an aeroplane. Keep the language clear and simple so that it is easy to understand and sounds genuine and human.

A light-hearted approach?: It is not generally recommended for organisations to use humour in a crisis response, but in the right circumstance there is something to be said for not taking yourself too seriously. For example, Greggs the baker turned a potential PR nightmare into a positive story when an offensive logo appeared on its Google profile. When its social media team discovered the spoof logo was describing its customers as 'scum' it responded brilliantly, embarking in some banter with the search engine.




Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our highly practical crisis communication and media training courses.


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