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Why apology isn’t always enough

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In today’s fast-paced, digitally connected world, a crisis can spread like wildfire, with the potential to do significant damage to a company’s reputation and bottom line. And when a crisis hits, one of the first things that many companies do is issue an apology in an attempt to mitigate the damage and regain the trust of their stakeholders.

Last month, a luxury Spanish label Balenciaga released two campaigns on its website. The first campaign released on the 16th November was a photographs of child models holding the brand’s handbags that appeared to be a bear wearing BDSM-inspired accessories (BDSM  stand for Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism: A sexual activity that involves giving and receiving pain for pleasure).

In the second campaign released on the 21st November, a bag is positioned on top of a poorly disguised document from a 2008 United States Supreme Court ruling, a case that focused on child pornography statute.

A viral tweet shone a spotlight on both images revealing the BDSM tendencies these campaigns are exposing children to and other twitter users began to dig up Balenciaga’s past misdeeds. This ignited a firestorm that traveled from the internet to main stream media like Fox News. In response, Balenciaga withdraw the campaign and issued an apology in which it called the campaigns “series of grievous errors”.

However, rather than this apology reducing the dragon fire of criticism from the public, it escalated the crisis as celebrities, influencers, and other social media users began to throw out and burn their Balenciaga products in protest, while so many other people started calling for the boycott of the label’s products. The Balenciaga apology was met with skepticism and criticism because many felt that it did not address the underlying issues at play, which are the fact that the company is sexually exploiting children as well as its inappropriate and offensive use of underage children for profit making.

It is clear from this Balenciaga crisis that apology was not enough to assuage the outrage of the public. So, the question will be why? Perhaps maybe it is not laden with enough emotion to attract sympathy from the public. Let us see how an apology full of emotion performed.

In 2020, during the lockdown measure by the Nigerian government to curb the spread of the deadly Covid-19 virus, popular Nigerian actress, Funke Akindele hosted a birthday party at her home in Lagos, in violation of the prevaling regulations. The party received widespread backlash, and after so much criticism, she issued an emotional apology and promised to donate money to a Covid-19 relief fund. However, many felt that Akindele’s apology was not sufficient given the gravity of the situation as evident in the increased intensity of her criticism online, and some people even called for her arrest.

The Covid-19 pandemic was (and still is) a global health crisis that has claimed the lives of millions of people around the world. By hosting a party in violation of the lockdown directives, many people argued that Akindele did not only endanger her own health and the health of her guests, but also contributed to the spread of the virus. In this case, an apology alone was not enough to address the harm caused by hes action. In the end, Akindele suffered loss of endorsement deals and a decline in her public image. She was also arrested, tried and sentenced for flouting social distancing order (but was granted state pardon). Thereafter, she did another apology video and she was pardoned by the public.

Again, an apology laced with emotion and empathy also failed to mitigate the crisis. Again, why? In both case studies, the guilty parties either directly or indirectly insulted the intelligence of victims and the public because, according to communication expert, Alice MacLachlan, what you are saying is “Trust Me, I’m Sorry”. It is illogical to ask people to trust you when you have just caused them harm or adversely affected their expectations.

The fact is that these apologies and others like them, whether they are embedded in emotion or empathy, are not sincere. A study in the Journal of Business Ethics found that the effectiveness of an apology in crisis management depends on the perceived sincerity of the apology. The challenge is, how do you measure the sincerity of your apology especially when it is based on the perception of other people?

We cannot know how sincere our apology is, but what we know from case studies and stream of researches are that

The truth is that we cannot know how sincere our apology is but what we know from case studies and stream of researches are that

  1. ‘Sorry’ or ‘I am sorry’ is not an Apology: It is a step in the Apology process. Sincere apology takes great courage because it reveals what most leaders, brands and organisations don’t want people to know about them. Why is Sincere Apology hard? Sincere apology is hard for the following reasons:
  • It shows imperfection: Being Fallible is not a reality most leaders, brands and organisations are ready to accept.
  • It is an admission of guilt: Sincere apology means taking responsibility. It is easy to deny or blame someone else or just ignore the public criticism.
  • It has consequences: Most leaders, brands or organisations are so afraid of the consequences of their malfeasance that they would rather deny, lie or just do a Plastic Apology just to avoid being punished for their crimes.
  1. Sympathy-oriented Apology doesn’t work: Many times, when leaders or organisations tender apologies in crisis, they do so just to attract public sympathy in order to stop negative comments, customers’ boycott or bleeding of clients. This has always proven ineffectual in mitigating crisis as demonstrated by the case studies earlier cited. The ineffectiveness of this sympathy-oriented apology was also corroborated by a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Business Communication by Surin Chung and Suman Lee, which revealed that sympathy-oriented apology has little or no impact in reducing public anger, negative impression, and distrust during a crisis.
  2. Crisis don’t just happen: Paraphrasing Prof. Fred Helio Garcia, the author of the best seller, The Power of Communication, “every crisis is first a business problem before it becomes a communication problem”. A stream of studies has revealed that a large percentage of crisis is as a result of ignored smouldering issues. This also shows that stakeholders’ perception is formed over time, and also from different sources before and during the crisis as studies from the crisis arena theory has proven.  And as we can see from the Balenciaga crisis, the massive outrage started when a Twitter user highlighted the negative latent implications of the campaign and other users of the platform began to dig up Balenciaga’s past misdeeds. A 2019 study published in the Frontiers of Psychology journal, which examines whether perceptions of a transgressor’s trustworthiness has any influence on the relationship between apologies and repaired of trust, as well as whether emotions play any role in this stakeholders’ perception of trustworthiness, found that effective repair of trust through apology was mediated by perceptions of the transgressor’s trustworthiness. Further, the relationship between apologies and perceptions of the transgressors trustworthiness was also found to be influenced by stakeholders’ emotions. Therefore, it is safe to say from empirical and case studies that the factors which influence stakeholders’ perception of a transgressor’s sincerity in a crisis.

It is clear from what we do know that rebuilding stakeholders’ trust and confidence after a crisis goes far beyond just saying ‘sorry’, spinning the story, having a crisis management plan or strategy, or any other fire brigade approach. It is about relationships and being a human.

A leader, brand or an organisation needs to build deeply rooted relationship with stakeholders and crisis. Building relationship with stakeholders most people will understand. But building relationship with crisis only few people may understand this concept. Yes, you can build relationship crises and I should know because I wrote a master thesis on this. The science behind it is called the ‘crisis relationship grid’.

In the same vein, most people can relate to a leader being a human during crisis, but they will struggle to fathom how a brand or an organisation can be human in a crisis situation. And this again is doable and it has been by several organisations in the past. It is just that it has not been a system approach up until know. The process is known as ‘Personification of Organization’, which is achieved through the 4Ps Model.

This is why the focus of my crisis management training for 2023 will be to help leaders, brands and organisations understand and internalise the import of the CRISIS RELATIONSHIP GRID and how their organisations can be more HUMANLY in crisis using the 4Ps Model.

Ayodele is an award winning strategic communication strategist who specializes in helping leaders, brands and organisations communicate in a way that yields the desired outcome. His contact: ishopr2015@gmail.com

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