A Public (or Stakeholder) Apology Is Worth a 1000 Words of Spin and Artful Dodging.

22 Jun 2022

By Contributor

Sam Elam
Trainer, consultant and public speaker Sam Elam says that the aim of an apology is to be accepted, so those affected feel they have been heard, have had some justice and been respected. Photo: Supplied.

When things go wrong, sorry seems to be the hardest word. Not just for people but often it is even harder for schools, organisations and companies.


Is it for fear of personal or brand consequences or litigation? Is it because they don’t believe they are wrong (even when the rest of the world does)? Is it arrogance? 

It can be a best practice strategy for an organisation or company to be on the front foot in times of crises.

It can turn a shocking situation into one that is managed strategically and with genuine heart. It can turn a negative into a positive, or at least a neutral.

People and all stakeholders – especially those directly affected – are human beings and want their leaders to be. It is human nature. We expect it.

It doesn’t need to adversely affect litigation and good lawyers know how to minimise the impact of this.

For businesses and schools, it is also a question of protecting reputation (but not at the expense of victims) and the impact of negative media coverage on reputations.

It is a sad irony that good, genuinely heartfelt, public apologies can be a good PR opportunity because we have not been used to hearing organisations do it. To a pleasing degree that is changing.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw some great high-profile apologies.

For example, the then-New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, apologised for the mistakes made in relation to the Ruby Princess cruise ship when it docked in Sydney and allowed infected and sick passengers to disembark.

This was Australia’s first ‘super spreader’ event where people died and many more were infected around the country. In front of a packed media conference, the NSW Premier started by saying, “can I now apologise unreservedly to any of the people who suffered as a result of the mistakes outlined in the report by the Health Department. I extend that apology unreservedly.”

She received great accolades for that apology because she didn’t follow the usual politicians’ strategy of speaking in politically safe, soundbite spin and using carefully composed, risk-averse talking points.

And then there are others, such as Eddie McGuire, President of the AFL Collingwood. 

He mistakenly said it was a “proud day” to reveal his Club’s historical racism.

The tragedy of that event was that it was such a missed opportunity for him and the Club. If he had apologised upfront about historical events, he could have taken the high ground and received credit for being the first club in the league to instigate and formally investigate issues in their own backyard.

McGuire was genuine in his concern for his players but he had the wrong words and messages upfront and he was severely criticised for that. The right key messages are so important. And so is sincerity.

To make matters and the headlines worse, McGuire read an apology the next day about the gaffe.

A read apology is not a real apology. If someone read an apology to you, would you believe it?

It was a gaffe that became a runaway train and ended his 23 years of great work at Collingwood. He fell on a sword that could have had the opposite effect and bathed him and the Club in glory.

In the Archdiocese of Perth, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB has been upfront and courageous in his communication on behalf of the Church and the Catholic community about historical sexual abuse.

As has Pope Francis. Both have made genuine and sincere public apologies over a number of years and still do today with human concern and compassion.

In his 2021 public apology concerning the court case of a deceased priest, Archbishop Costelloe, among other statements, said “the Catholic Church has a deplorable history in relation to the sexual abuse of the young and vulnerable. The Royal Commission shone a much-needed light on this dark chapter in the Church’s history. Nothing can justify or cancel out the dreadful mistakes of the past. What the Church can do today and into the future is to commit itself to treating those who have been abused with dignity, respect and integrity…”.

Two years earlier, in a 2019 public statement, the Archbishop said “to all victims and survivors of sexual abuse within the Church, I can only say how deeply sorry and ashamed I am that you have been subjected to these horrors. Your childhood and teenage years were stolen from you in the most terrible way…”.

Both of these are good examples of genuine, heartfelt apologies. No spin; instead, open acceptance of ‘mea culpa’ and responsibility.

There are other things that an apology should contain if it is to be taken as sincere and genuine.

In addition to taking responsibility, the apology should show recognition, understanding and acknowledgement of the harm or distress caused. It should make a definitive statement of regret as well as a plain and simple apology, “I am or we are sorry”.

There should be a clear reference to what actions have been taken to right wrongs and what will be done in the future to avoid reoccurrence.

Finally, if relevant and appropriate, any support systems or assistance being offered should be made very clear.

The aim of an apology is to be accepted, so those affected feel they have been heard, have had some justice and been respected.

These are the pillars to restore trust, engagement and caring.

Any other way will escalate the events and intensify the crisis to a new, risky and unwanted level.

Sam Elam is a trainer, consultant and speaker in high stakes, strategic communication for executives. She specialises in issues and crisis communication for schools particularly when the media is involved. www.mediamanoeuvres.com.au