Remember the amazing pop song by Blue and Elton John called “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”? Never could imagine I will associate it with crisis communications, but it’s true. During the PRCA Webinar on Crisis Management, hosted by Nickie Aiken, it was almost the first thing she stated: in any crisis, the organization should say “Sorry” to show their sorrow and empathy to the victims and those who suffer somehow from the crisis. Nickie emphasized, that making apologize does not necessarily means that you admit the fault or take responsibility, but it helps you to engage with the audience and keep your reputation while making the investigation. That time, in last October, her words seemed to me fully true.
However, now I have some doubts whether this principal about saying ‘sorry’ at first is the universal one. In the paper on strategic crisis communication, Coombs (2015) mentions that in some cases the apology may lead to further damage to the reputation. He defines crises caused by integrity violations (incidental) or lack of competence (accidental). In the last case, the apology will be effective due to the same reasons as Nickie mentions. But in case of incidental crisis saying ‘sorry’ can ‘to intensify damage from trust violations’ (2015), as the audience feels the company is guilty for what happened and responsible for both factual and moral damage.
Considering these two points of view and the importance of fast reaction to the crisis and instant communication (that is mentioned, for instance, by Nickie Aiken in her webinar as well as by Nerys Jones from Regester Larkin during her lecture at the University of Westminster), we need to define immediately which type of crisis we have. However, it may be quite complicated and one crisis never looks the same as all previous ones (because in that case it would be so stupid not to prevent it, would not it?).
Someone may consider the problem of making the apology to be a small issue, but when the crisis starts, there is not so much information you can provide to your audience, so you need to decide rapidly what to say. Seems, ‘sorry’ is the hardest word to say for PR managers not only because of their pride but also because of the strategic meaning of this message.
Coombs W. (2015). The value of communication during a crisis: Insights from strategic communication research. Business Horizons, vol. 58, issue 2, 141–148. Available from http://iranarze.ir/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/E2626.pdf [Accessed 4 February 2017].