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VOL. 128 | NO. 98 | Monday, May 20, 2013

'We Made a Mistake'

By Kerri Guyton

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Like a carpenter who utilizes an arsenal of powerful tools with extreme caution – because they hold enough power to accidentally saw off a finger or a hand – PR professionals carefully craft statements and key messages for brands because they too have the potential to “cut off” something valuable to a company – like an entire target audience. The statement “we made a mistake” is one of the most powerful declarations a brand can make, but as with all powerful things, it must be used carefully and with precision.

In a recent video for the Public Relations Society of America titled “The Art of the Apology,” Virgil Scudder, an executive communication coach and crisis expert, acknowledges that many executives put admitting a mistake and apologizing for it in the same category as swearing at shareholders – you shouldn’t do it. However, he points out that there is an art to admitting a mistake and that “apologizing at the right time, in the right way, for the right reasons is a sign of strength.” He also concludes that it is “often a business necessity.” I completely agree.

In this video, Scudder also lays out key steps that can be taken in an apology to reverse negative feelings and help restore the company’s reputation.

The apology must:

• Be timely

• Be specific to whom you are apologizing

• Be sincere in admitting the wrong that was done

• Offer a reason for the wrongdoing

• Include a pledge that it won’t be repeated

• Offer some remedial action to those harmed by the mistake

These points are similar to steps I outlined for defusing an emotional customer on Obsidian’s blog, From the Rock, which are as easy to remember as your vowels, AEIOU: acknowledgement, empathy, insight, offer and understanding.

The point is to be quick to acknowledge the mistake and express sincere empathy about the harm that may have been caused by the wrong. Provide insight on why the mistake happened and offer to do something to remedy the situation. With today’s technology and social media applications, audiences are more closely tuned into a brand, and expectations of sincerity and transparency are higher. Audiences also feel more entitled to voice concerns, mistreatments and blunders in these public forums. Company mistakes are often broadcast immediately and picked up by multiple outlets simultaneously. Brushing mistakes under the carpet is absolutely not an option anymore.

A well-planned, timely and authentic admission and apology can cast an unbelievable power over a potentially negative situation, but “with great power comes great responsibility” (thank you, Spiderman) to follow through on what you say you will do – to learn from your mistake – which can move the audience into the understanding stage of the AEIOU sequence, where there is an agreement that the situation is resolved and audiences can walk away feeling satisfied – and possibly more loyal to the brand than before.

Kerri Guyton is an account manager at Obsidian Public Relations, a Memphis-based public relations firm.

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