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The Apologizer in Chief: Tips for Corporate Communicators When It Comes to Saying Sorry

Maggie Edinger

Last Tuesday, Toshiba Corp. president and CEO Hisao Tanaka, along with two of his colleagues, bowed for 13 seconds before a roomful of reporters. The occasion, as you've no doubt read since the unusual press conference, was the revelation that Toshiba had overstated its profits over the previous six years by US$1.2 billion.

Tanaka's grave acknowledgement of his failure to the company's stakeholders was one of the more sincere corporate apologies in what's become a cottage industry for corporate communicators. In the past month there's been a steady stream of apologies from corporations and high profile individuals, ranging from Mitsubishi, Reddit (sort of?), Whole Foods, to Hulk Hogan, Taylor Swift and even the Pope.

The question facing communications professionals today is less if they will ever find themselves pulled into a war room to craft an apology, but when. With this in mind, here are some tips for taking your apologies from empty to emphatic.

  1. When delivering bad news, look the part.

The FT's James Mackintosh writes of an upcoming study by researchers at UC Berkeley and London Business School, "a genuinely apologetic CEO, looking properly sad, significantly mitigated the damage to the shares." In particular, the researchers found that in their analysis of 37 corporate apologies, the absence of "upper face happiness" (or that telling "crinkle about the eyes") can actually cushion a drop in share prices.

  1. The messenger matters.

For major company failures and shortcomings, Mackintosh, referencing the Berkeley-LBS study, makes the point that a company's "minions" can be less effective at conveying an apology to investors than the CEO. In giving an apology, the CEO's delivery and demeanor throughout will demonstrates that company leadership both appreciate the gravity of the situation and will take full responsibility for making amends (whether to consumers, shareholders, employees, regulators, etc.).

  1. Apologize with purpose.

A February 2015 study by the London School of Economics found that corporate apologies were most effective when "they pointed to action," and that the apologizer came across as "a conduit of change." A successful apology should be accompanied by a plan, or, if you can't get into specifics, at least a vision of how the company will not end up in this position again. (h/t South China Morning Post)

  1. Effective leaders apologize.

Perhaps the most significant concept that emerged from the LSE study was that a genuine, effective apology is actually indicative of a more effective leader. According to the study authors, rather than serving as a liability, "Apologies give companies a chance to lead their peer group in a new direction..."

While there is unfortunately no formula to be followed in crafting a well-received apology, the key area that is within your control as a communicator or counselor to the CEO is your own honesty.

As you craft and test statements, be brutally honest in your personal critique of the authenticity of the message you're putting out into the marketplace. Imagine if your leading competitor put out the same message - would you roll your eyes or appreciate their candor? If the latter, it's worth acknowledging so that you can be better prepared if, or when, your opportunity arrives. End of Story

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