In a PR crisis why does sorry seem to be the hardest word?

7 Jul

I’ve returned from two weeks in Cornwall to a bumper crop of PR disasters. Hot on the heels of Argyll and Bute, Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs were called ‘morally wrong’ by David Cameron, RBS’ technology went into meltdown, leaving millions of customers unable to make payments or withdraw cash, and Barclays’ CEO Bob Diamond resigned after the bank was embroiled in a Libor rate rigging scandal. In all three cases, I think that there are some interesting lessons for communications professionals about how, when and why errors are acknowledged and apologies made (or not).

The three key things that I’ve learned here are:

  • Avoid stock responses. When Jimmy Carr apologised for a ‘terrible error of judgement’ after using a tax avoidance scheme, I can’t be the only person who found this phrase unconvincing. Whatever your views on tax evasion, there was nothing technically wrong with Carr’s response- except that it sounded too much like it had been cut and pasted by his PR adviser as standard apology text. An apology has to ring true so it has to capture the person’s tone of voice. Carr’s statement might have taken the heat out of the story, but I suspect that many of his fans didn’t buy it entirely. Anything that looks too obviously ‘like PR’ may not broker support. Witness how viewers were largely indifferent to the reported judges’ feuds on BBC talent show The Voice earlier this summer.
  • Be human. RBS were praised on the CIPR blog for their handling of the PR crisis resulting from their technical issues. And it’s true that they did some things well. Speedy acknowledgement that there was a technical issue- tick; extended weekend opening hours in their branches- tick; advising their customers via social media- tick. I would also like to have seen them take a slightly different tone in their crisis communications. They did the right thing in getting the story focused on the technical issue, but that left them little room for manoeuvre in acknowledging some of the ways on which their customers had been affected personally. There were reports of households struggling as their salaries failed to materialise in their bank accounts, and a heartbreaking story about a couple who were left unable to buy a headstone for their baby’s grave. I would have advised RBS to take a more empathetic and human tone in their communications and acknowledged some of the very personal ways that their technical error affected their customers’ lives.
  • Remember that time is of the essence. Bob Diamond, Barclays’ CEO, eventually resigned after Mervyn King was said to have put pressure on the bank. But this didn’t happen until several days after the rate fixing scandal broke, and now Diamond looks unlikely to go without a fight for a multi million pound payout. In a PR crisis, every second counts, and everyone who works for the organisation must be made to understand this.

In these turbulent times, people are demanding more from the organisations they support- whether they are banks, government bodies or charities. Trust and transparency are at a premium. And of course mistakes inevitably happen, sometimes caused by factors that cannot be fully controlled. Handled well, a PR crisis can be an opportunity for an organisation to shine a light on what it can do better and ultimately re-affirm support amongst its stakeholders. It takes a brave, open and honest organisation to do this, and a courageous communications director to help them own this approach amid the inevitable pressure not to admit liability unless appropriate. I’d love to hear some examples of charities who have done this. And next time your organisation makes an error, how will you handle it?

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