8 February 2021

Why is ‘sorry’ the hardest word?

By Dallas Gurney

There is a seductive moment at the start of every reputational crisis where you think you might’ve gotten away with it.

Something potentially cataclysmic happens – a prominent manager gets done for fraud; the marketing team make an ad that misrepresents the brand; or the social media person makes an off-colour joke on your facebook page thinking it was their own.

You deal with the issue.  The manager is culled, the ad is pulled, the post deleted.

You hold your breath and wait for the fallout.

Nothing happens.  Maybe for an hour.  Maybe for a day.  For a week even.

Then someone posts about it on twitter.

It’s only one post.  No damage.

A few other posts crop up.  The brand starts to get tagged in.

A journo sees the activity and writes it up as a story.

A prominent influencer shares the article with their 400,000 followers.  You’re now a meme.

The Project show the meme on nationwide TV.

You get the picture.

At Serious, we often talk about the “window of opportunity” – the limited time you have to deal with an issue before it takes on a life of its own.  A potential crisis is like a snowball rolling down the face of a mountain.  Catch it at the top, while you can, or you will be suffocated when it turns into an avalanche at the bottom.

Saying sorry carries weight

One of the most effective tools to put a stop to an otherwise impending reputational crisis is to apologise to those you’ve hurt.

It’s simple, yet potent.  Kiwis are a forgiving bunch, when someone says they are sorry in a genuine way, we tend to appreciate the apology and give someone another chance.

Yet brands often only utilise the apology when they absolutely have to.  We seem to be suckers for punishment, only saying sorry when there are no other less conspicuous options on the table.

There are, of course, many psychological reasons why this is the case.  Ego.  Fear.  Embarrassment.

However, these are misleading.  The truth is, saying sorry is incredibly liberating.

Apologise before you’re forced to

No doubt the team at Magic Talk were faced with this conundrum when John Banks seemed to support a racist talkback caller on his fill-in radio show a couple of weeks ago.

If they had known how this would turn into a crisis for the brand they would’ve apologised within minutes.

But that’s the hard part.  I feel for them.  Because you don’t know.

But you do know it is wrong.

If a brand falls on its sword when they do something bad (instead of just when they’re caught out) then it is much less likely they’ll be calling up the Crisis Management Team over the issue.

Of course, you can’t keep saying sorry.  If you’ve done it once, you don’t want to be having to do it again the next day.  People will doubt your sincerity.  They’ll also think you’re not very good at your job.

But the power of an apology can’t be beaten.  Except by an apology at the right time.

When’s that?

As Alan Hilburg, one of the brains behind the management of the Tylenol crisis in the 1982 says – “it’s always the right time to do what’s right”.