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Sorry I’m Not Sorry: Why an Apology Isn’t Always the Answer
By: Kimberly Shrack
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When you’ve done something wrong, or at least not right, there are a number of ways to respond, each with varying degrees of sincerity and effectiveness. There’s the “wasn’t me” method employed by Shaggy; “sorry I got caught” approach used by many a philandering politician; and, of course, my personal favorite, the “sorry I’m not sorry” technique. But if you’re an organization in the midst of a crisis, this response requires a little more finesse — and, according to new research, may take you in a different direction than you think.
A recent study published in the Public Relations Journal examined how five different types of crisis responses impact the relationship between the organization and its publics, as well as perceptions of its corporate social responsibility. These responses are based on the five major image restoration strategies, or strategies designed to repair an organization’s image after a crisis situation. These include:
  • Corrective action: In this strategy, the organization agrees to fix the problem and promises not to repeat the action. May contain the phrase, “This will not happen again.”
  • Evade responsibility: In this strategy, the apology will concede that something did happen, but attempt to reduce the organization’s responsibility. May contain phrases such as “We were unaware” or “It was never our intention.”
  • Denial: A classic — you didn’t do it. But maybe someone else did.
  • Mortification: This is the true apology — the organization will express regret and request forgiveness.
  • Reduce offensiveness: While there are a number of different ways to reduce the offensiveness of the act in question (such as bolstering the organization’s image, minimizing negative feelings, attacking the accuser or offering compensation), this strategy simply means the organization tries to make whatever happened look not so bad.
To determine the best approach, researchers developed a news story for each of the five major image restoration strategies, with corresponding statements, and measured consumers’ reactions to these messages. The scenario revolved around a product recall, with the official statement coming from the president of the company.
Of course, selecting a strategy depends on the severity of the situation, and the particulars around the issue. But when it comes to preserving the relationship between the organization and the public, as well as the perception of corporate social responsibility, one strategy stood out among the rest: reduce offensiveness. According to the results of this study, the reduce offensiveness statement led to individuals having higher amounts of trust and commitment in the organization-public relationship. It also led to a more positive perception of the organization’s reputation, credibility and image.
Surprised? Me too. Reading through the study, I thought corrective action or mortification would be at the top of the list. I mean, when you have done something wrong, saying you’re sorry outright is a good thing, right? Good, but not best, apparently. This study found that instead of being straightforward and taking responsibility with crisis communication, it is better for your relationship with the public and their perception of your corporate social responsibility to develop messages that bolster your image, minimize negative feelings, attack the accuser — and, of course, offering some compensation couldn’t hurt.
Again, it’s worth reiterating that each situation and organization under crisis is different and will likely require different response strategies. And the reduce offensiveness strategy won’t work every time — if your organization doesn’t have a great relationship with the public, and your image is less than pristine, chances are, this wouldn’t be the best way to go. But if, on the other hand, you have an excellent reputation, a good relationship with the public, but find yourself in a bit of a pickle (say, a product recall), try this strategy on for size — it might just serve you well in the long run.

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About the Author
Kimberly Shrack is a PR pro based in Philadelphia, specializing in writing and content development. She has worked in communication for a variety of industries including technology, travel, art, and healthcare. Follow her on Twitter at @kjshrack.
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