So Sorry

As with many facets of crisis communications, things are changing on the apology front. We’ll start off with my standard apology-related advice:

It’s okay to say you’re sorry.

When you step back from all of the day-to-day and litigiousness of our world, it seems strange to have to say that out loud. We weren’t raised that way. Many of us have the very specific memory of being forced by a parent to walk to a neighbor’s house and apologize for something we broke or perpetrated (or maybe that was just me and my friends). And usually, that was enough for us to learn our lesson. Something changed when we got older though, and apologizing was seen as part of some sort of bad thing, where uttering two little words that we were all taught could invite down a host of problems.

As I usually do with things that no longer make any sense, I’ll blame this one on the lawyers. Some fine, enterprising young man decided that an apology was both an admission of guilt and invitation for further punishment, owing to the admission of harm being perpetrated.

And at that level, especially in cases where real harm was done, an apology and effort to make it right are called for. Much like when you (read: I) broke the neighbor’s window, someone had to pay to get it fixed. The apology wasn’t part of fixing the window, though, it was an effort to repair the human part of the equation. To fix feelings, to commiserate, to express a desire that things could’ve–should’ve–been different.

Unfortunately the two very specific, and different, actions have become conflated. Thus too many who have the power to make apologies feel like they cannot for fear of inviting further monetary admonishment. And that’s a shame, because there is real power in apology. It empowers the person who has been wronged and, in many cases, it can help speed psychological healing. There is even some research that patients who experience medical malpractice may be less likely to sue if they’re apologized to.

And yet, the myth that we can’t apologize maintains. I have a theory for why this is: it’s because apologies are still so rare. While no one wants to be the first person to jump in a pool, similarly no one wants to be the first to offer a heartfelt apology. Which is why I’m really excited about this new-to-me endeavor called SorryWatch. Seemingly modeled after the extremely useful RetractionWatch and EmbargoWatch, it’s an attempt to look at how apologies work, and has profiled both the world-busting ones, like Lance Armstrong, to the mundane ones, like car windshield apologies.

It’s my hope that as more crisis communicators see that you can apologize, and have lots of templates and lessons learned to learn from, we might see more of that thing that our (read: my) parents tried so hard to instill in us: empathy.