Apologies have been a discussion in PR and crisis communication for years. When do you apologize? How do you apologize? Through what communication medium do you apologize?
Recent news has brought this topic into mainstream discussion once again. One example is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and how he is trying to muddle through the thousands of complaints Netflix customers have about its newest business operations. A recent Washington Post article, The Science Behind Saying Sorry, discussed how Hastings’ effort to address his angry customers is following a familiar script.
In the past individuals have reacted differently to apologies. Some are effective and some crash and burn. Is there a specific formula for the perfect apology? How do you repent while managing the fact that you are confirming blame? Personally, I would appreciate a sincere apology; one that doesn’t utilize scapegoats. According to a leadership text-book when leaders fail and lose credibility the 6 “As” of leadership accountability should be utilized. Accept responsibility, admit mistakes, apologize, take immediate remedial action, make amends or reparation and pay close attention to the reactions of your followers. This is where Hastings’ apology failed. Although he did say I’m sorry. He was apologizing for not explaining his recent business decision to charge Netflix customers more, but customers were mad that he did not make any remedial action to solve the problem. He did not pay close attention to the reactions of his followers.
Another recent example includes College of Charleston Student Body President, Ross Kressel. Kressel faced impeachment from office for tweeting offensive comments about gays, women and some of his colleagues. After surviving impeachment he issued an apology via email to the student body. Below is the email sent.
This letter is an apology from my heart for the actions you may have recently read about. As Student Body President I acted inappropriately and for that I apologize. I apologize for whatever embarrassment, pain, or suffering I may have caused any of you in my capacity, because that is obviously not why you elected me your Student Body President. I pledge to continue to work for you, represent you, and create the College environment you desire. I as well as my colleagues in the Student Government Association welcome your call or email in the future to let us know how we can better serve you. In the coming days, I will contact you to inform you of some of the major issues that will be addressed during the school year.
Ross Kressel, President of the Student Body
After receiving this apology by email I began to question if this medium was the most effective means to deliver an apology for such an offensive act. How should apologies be delivered to their publics? Does delivery medium have an effect on the perceived effectiveness of the apology? I would argue that the medium does have an effect of the perceived effectiveness of the apology. As a communication master’s student I can’t help but apply a media theory to this example. According to media richness theory, individuals should match the communication channel to the content of the information. The second major consideration of this theory is the nature of the message that needs to be sent. The scholars that created this theory centered the nature of the message on ambiguity – the possibility of multiple interpretations or confusion. Therefore, the more ambiguous and sensitive the message the richer the medium that should be utilized (with face-to-face being the richest medium). I would argue that Hastings and Kressel should have used a richer form of media to communicate their apology. Would their apologies have been perceived differently if a richer medium were chosen? Do you think email and social media sites are effective mediums to deliver apologies? Does if depend on the situation?