Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Good old Elton John had a point with his slushy but memorable 70s hit. So what’s the best way for business leaders to apologise over corporate scandals, massive computer failures, the wrong kind of snow – and other embarrassments? And what isn’t?

RBS group chief executive Stephen Hester had to dig deep in late June when key bank computers ‘said no’ over several days. NatWest customers in particular were unable to get their cash – or pay any out for that matter – as the RBS money-go-round came to a grinding halt, hitting other banks too.

Hester, no stranger to controversy over his salary and bonus, went online with ‘first person’ web messages to RBS customers and staff.

In the first he succinctly acknowledges the disruption caused, before diving straight into a short second paragraph with how ‘very sorry’ he is about letting customers down. Crucially, the CEO then moves swiftly on to the practical steps the bank’s taking to put things right, before signing off with a brief final ‘sorry again’.

237 well chosen words leave you with the impression the boss has taken things on the chin and really is doing something about it. The fact that RBS pulled out of Wimbledon will have added to the feeling that humble Hester meant what he said.

Rupert Murdoch’s apology over phone hacking on behalf of News International in July 2011 takes a different tack.

Newspaper man Murdoch opts for a trad press ad route and half the word count. He expresses the company’s sorrow not once, but three times in the ‘We are sorry’ headline and first four lines of body copy – even switching to ‘regret’ in the fifth.

Other key differences from RBS are the way Murdoch uses the first person plural ‘we’, but opts against detailing how ‘they’ will rectify the wrongdoing.

Does Mr Murdoch’s strategy reduce the sincerity factor – the ‘we’ further diluting any sense of personal responsibility? And does the promise to ‘get back to us’ convince? Well, that’s for you to decide.

Take five

So next time you need to say sorry after a slip-up, here are five tips for making your apology stick – and rebuilding trust:

  1. Recognise that what’s happened has happened

Take your audience’s perspective, even if it clashes with your own.

  1. Fess up nice and early

Be bold and acknowledge responsibility straightaway.

  1. Say sorry once – and mean it

A single sorry has more impact than a gaggle of them.

  1. Share the game plan

Detail how you’re rectifying mistakes or problems and will be aiming to avoid them in the future.

  1. Remind people you’re reformed

And won’t be doing it (whatever it is…) ever again.

Need assistance with an apology? Or a spoonful of diplomacy for other sensitive communications? Give us a call on 01225 731 373 or drop us an email.