September 26, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

When “we’re sorry” isn’t an option

When “we’re sorry” isn’t an option

Fellow Media Bullseye writer Jordan Gosselin posted an excellent piece recently about the art of the public apology and why it is necessary for public relations professionals to understand the nature of what makes a good and sincere apology.


There’s another side to this that presents its tricky head every so often, and it’s the bane of every brand in the midst of a serious crisis: those times when issuing an apology is desperately needed, but you cannot. Why? Because of the legal department.


Things get difficult very quickly when a serious crisis hits. While any business would think that a brand-damaging issue is a serious crisis, things move to another level when recalls, illness, injury, or deaths are involved. A company reputation crisis is now compounded by the very real potential of future litigation.


In a situation like this, PR can rapidly find itself at odds with legal counsel. These are two distinct practices, each with the goal of protecting the company’s future—but which take different paths to get there. PR’s role is to limit the damage to a brand or company’s reputation, but legal’s role is to limit the exposure to litigation, and an apology can make that complicated.


Here are the components of an effective apology from the earlier article:


  1. A clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement.
  2. An expression of regret for what happened.
  3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
  4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
  5. A request for forgiveness.


Several of these components, in particular number three, can carry the force of an acknowledgement of guilt and/or responsibility. Having this public acknowledgement on record can complicate a defense strategy, particularly if a trial is involved. Most lawyers would prefer to say nothing at all in these situations, as there’s risk in making any statement.


Since saying nothing isn’t an option, both the PR and legal teams need to work together to provide effective and accurate messaging.


Ways to minimize conflict


There are a number of steps that can be taken that lay the foundation for a better working relationship between the two practices for when a crisis hits. The steps fall under internal communications, which is important to any organization regardless of size:


  • PR and legal should be closely connected in day-to-day operations of a company. If the only connection between the two is legal’s review of copy before it’s sent out or posted, that isn’t enough. Try to encourage a regular working collaboration rather than a “draft-review-revise” dynamic that typically exists.
  • PR and legal should know and understand the requirements and business reasons that guide each group’s regular activities. The middle of a crisis is a horrible time to try and explain why an apology is important to convey to customers, or to try and explain the complex legal ramifications of using certain phrasing. Talk that stuff over now, so everyone knows what the general parameters are if and when a crisis hits.
  • Have a crisis plan in place. I cannot emphasize this enough. Sitting down and working through “what-if” scenarios has a wonderful way of bringing to light issues that would come up, and you can work through them with clear eyes and calm heads. You will not be able to run through every scenario, but pick a few—from TV shows, from current news, whatever—and role play through them. Once you’ve identified problem areas (and you will), you will have time to resolve the issues in a way that hopefully works for everyone.


For a detailed examination of this topic, please take the time to read through a piece on this very issue from the Institute for Public Relations, written by Cayce Myers. It’s well worth your time and will be useful in any planning that you do.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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