The Art of the Apology

This week, Grayling hosted an expert panel to discuss the “Art of the Apology” with a focus on how organisations can navigate crises and issues during a time of heightened scrutiny and expectations on businesses and individuals.  

External socio-political pressures have rarely been so constant as a backdrop to communications as they are in recent times, from Brexit to Covid to the cost-of-living crisis. When things go wrong, and as we learn to live with permacrisis, “sorry” still seems to be the hardest word for many leaders and businesses.  

The panel was chaired by Grayling’s Senior Counsel, Scott Langham, and included: 

  • Jenny Afia, partner at Schillings 
  • Lord Kamlesh Patel, chair of Yorkshire County Cricket Club  
  • Baroness Nicky Morgan, Former Secretary of State for DCMS and Education Secretary  
  • Stephen Bevan, Former News Editor, The Sunday Times 

Held under Chatham House rules, the event explored how organisations and leaders can prepare for the worst, the lessons we can learn from some of the biggest communications issues of recent times, and what this means for planning, firefighting and rebuilding reputation.  

The wide-ranging conversation touched on topics such as the importance of empathy during a crisis, the move toward greater transparency and openness, and the legal ramifications of apologising and what this means for liability. During the discussion, some key insights emerged:  

  • An apology without action loses impact: saying sorry is a good start but without action – in terms of addressing what happened and seeking to make things right – it can be detrimental to an organisation or leader’s reputation.  
  • Addressing an issue head-on is an opportunity to drive real change: it can be tempting in a time of ongoing disruption to avoid addressing problems that might disappear from the news cycle as quickly as they appear. The danger of such an approach is that issues can continue to cause damage and may re-emerge. Admitting that something went wrong can be a platform for positive reputational benefit, if real and lasting change is the end result.  
  • Empathy and understanding of the wider context are crucial: a vital component of a successful crisis response is factoring in a human and relatable response, tapping into the public mood. This also plays a part in the authenticity of an apology – demonstrating understanding will mean that an apology will be regarded as genuinely remorseful rather than lip service. 
  • The medium is the message: there are a multitude of ways to apologise, but the way to deliver your message is fundamental, from a CEO going on live TV to pre-recorded content to judicious use of social. This is where understanding of your audience, and key stakeholders, as well as ongoing relationships can help to drive understanding with those who need it most.
  • There is a misconception that lawyers and PRs are against each other: in fact, both are prioritising their clients, and working side by side can breed exceptional results and protect reputations. Liability is clearly a factor, but each case must be considered on its merits, and gut feel can often help to sway the basis of advice. 
  • Ingredients of a good apology: clear (including the word sorry), concise, empathetic, and accountable – delivered in good time, and in a tone which resonates!  

With thanks to all our panellists and our highly-engaged audience! 

If you would like to learn more about how we could help you or your organisation with crisis and issues management please get in touch with us at crisis@grayling.com.