Posted: June 28, 2005
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Article SummaryVanessa Burrow of The Age, Australia’s number one newspaper, emailed me seven questions for an article on what she called “crisis communication” – in my terms it was mostly outrage management. I answered the ones on the role of apology in crisis situations, on organizations’ preparedness for crises, and on how Australia’s AWB controversy might have played out if the company had shown contrition. These are the original questions and answers.

The Role of Apologizing in Crisis Situations,
Organizational Preparedness for
Reputational Crises, and How
an Apology Might Have Affected
Australia’s AWB Controversy

Peter M. Sandman’s emailed response
to questions from Vanessa Burrow

Vanessa Burrow of The Age, Australia’s number one newspaper, emailed me seven questions for an article on what she called “crisis communication” – in my terms it was mostly outrage management. I answered three of them.

The resulting June 16, 2007 article is also on this site:

1. How important is apologising when managing a crisis?

It depends on the crisis. In a “real” crisis, when people are rightly upset about a situation that may genuinely endanger them (their health, safety, economic wellbeing, or whatever), apologizing is secondary – even if you have things to apologize for. The core communication tasks in such cases are helping people bear the situation, helping them bear the strong feelings it arouses, and helping them make wise rather than unwise decisions about how to cope. Among the key crisis communication recommendations for a “real” crisis: Don’t over-reassure, acknowledge uncertainty, validate people’s fears, and give people things to do.

Suppose there were a severe flu pandemic, for example. The Australian Government might have reason to apologize to the public for being insufficiently prepared; companies might have reason to apologize to employees and customers for being insufficiently prepared. But both would face more important communication tasks as well.

In fact, crisis communication experts sometimes define the end of a crisis as the moment when people’s focus shifts from “How do we cope with this horrific situation?” to “Who is to blame?”. It’s not a bad idea to apologize for what went wrong before that shift occurs – that is, to start your apologizing while people are still relying on you to help them get through the crisis. (“Strike while the iron is cold.”) But you’ll still have to apologize some more later, when the crisis is over and assessing blame is the new focus.

I suspect you’re less interested in a “real” crisis than in a “reputational” crisis – a situation that endangers some company’s or government agency’s reputation far more than it endangers the public. In my terms, this is a low-hazard, high-outrage risk, whereas a real crisis is a high-hazard, high-outrage risk. In a reputational crisis, apologizing is essential.

Here are some tech specs for forgiveness:

  • You have to acknowledge what you did. Hypothetical apologies (“whatever I might have done that might have offended people, I’m sorry”) don’t cut it. And your list of your own misdeeds has to be complete. Apologizing for peccadilloes while continuing to hide more serious infractions will backfire badly when the latter come to light later.
  • You have to allow time for others to criticize you. Preemptive apologies (“I’m sorry; now let’s not talk about it; I already said I was sorry”) don’t cut it either. Forgiveness requires a period during which you’re busy saying you’re sorry and your victims and critics are busy saying you damn well should be.
  • You have to accept responsibility. If a child breaks a lamp, “I’m sorry your lamp broke” won’t do the job; “I’m sorry I broke your lamp” is the apology that’s called for. Even if you decide you shouldn’t accept legal responsibility, you can still accept moral responsibility. Here’s a formulation my clients sometimes find useful: “Our lawyers tell us it’s not our fault. But we feel like it’s our fault, and we’re going to act like it’s our fault.”
  • You have to explain why it happened. That’s part of taking responsibility, not a substitute for taking responsibility. Explanations for misbehavior fall into two main categories: “stupid” and “evil.” Since evil is harder to forgive, it pays to say so if you were stupid.
  • You have to back your apology with two kinds of efforts to “make it right” – compensation for those who were hurt by what you did, and policy improvements so it’s less likely to happen again (not “to ensure that it will never happen again”; that’s over-promising). Note that compensation and improvement should come after you apologize, not instead of apologizing.
  • You have to be humiliated, ashamed – and it has to show. This is the secular equivalent of the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance – the final step in forgiveness. The dynamics of apology/forgiveness hinge on shame. If you don’t visibly mean your apology, if it looks calculated, brazen, and unashamed, it doesn’t count.

2. How are most companies/government organisations preparing for potential crises these days? How do you evaluate their preparations – are they sufficient or not?

Arguably, it is impossible to prepare sufficiently for a crisis. It is the nature of crises to take you by surprise. If you were fully prepared, they wouldn’t be crises; they’d be business as usual.

Still, most organizations strike me as preparing pretty decently for the logistical side of a crisis, and pretty poorly for the communication side. They are rightly preoccupied with what they’re going to do, but they have no idea – or, worse yet, the wrong idea – of what they ought to say. Even within communications, most organizations are overly focused on logistics. Every crisis communication plan I have seen has pages and pages on communication logistics, especially internal communication logistics: who contacts whom when the crisis breaks, who serves on the crisis management team, how often the team meets, whose signoff is needed before a public statement is released, etc.

These are all worth worrying about, but they don’t go to the heart of the sorts of communication mistakes organizations most typically make in crisis situations: delaying too long before acknowledging the crisis, being too defensive about what went wrong, withholding information, sounding overconfident about information that should have been released tentatively, sounding over-optimistic about the chances that things could get worse, refusing to acknowledge other people’s differing opinions, refusing to give credit to critics for policy changes the critics successfully pushed, talking contemptuously about the public’s fears, etc.

This overemphasis on logistical planning and neglect of message planning is true of both real crises (high hazard, high outrage) and reputational crises (low hazard, high outrage).

3. In your experience, what is an example of a well-handled crisis situation (preferably recent)?


4. What about a badly handled crisis?


5. What do you think would have happened if AWB published contrite statements about their involvement in paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime?

Blame typically happens on a seesaw. That is, how much you blame me for something I did wrong depends largely on how much I blame myself. If I emphasize how bad I was and how sorry I am, you tend to see all the more clearly the mitigating factors – the ways in which others were also at fault, the ways in which my misbehavior is widespread, the ways in which I was more “stupid” than “evil,” the ways in which I have tried to make amends, etc. But if I emphasize all those mitigating factors myself, you tend to dismiss them and blame me more.

As is true for most misbehaviors, there were some genuine mitigating factors with respect to AWB’s involvement in the Oil for Food scandal. Among them: the huge number of other companies that were similarly involved, though on a smaller scale; the long history of petty corruption in that industry in that part of the world, where undocumented payments to port officials and the like have been virtually standard operating procedure; the fact that the United Nations Secretariat and the member states (including Australia) knew or should have known what was going on and turned a blind eye; and the fact that AWB neither paid or received kickbacks itself, but rather passed through to the U.N. inflated transport invoices, with reason to suspect that some of the proceeds were destined to end up in the pockets of the Saddam Hussein regime.

AWB had a lot to apologize for. AWB should have seen the moral difference between ordinary kickbacks to low-level government officials and high-volume kickbacks to a regime so noxious the United Nations actually devised the Oil for Food program to keep it from profiting from its own oil. AWB should have created a corporate culture in which middle managers brought their suspicions to senior management’s attention and in which senior management blew the whistle publicly. And when the truth started coming out, AWB should have acknowledged its role instead of stonewalling and defending.

If AWB had apologized thoroughly, sincerely, and skillfully for what it did wrong (following the tech specs in my previous answer), I think the public would have been much more willing to take note of the mitigating factors and forgive the company.

6. In your opinion, what are the most important things to know about crisis management?


7. Are there any people worldwide who you recognise as being exceptional crisis management practitioners?


Copyright © 2005 by Peter M. Sandman

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