Sorry Seems to be the hardest word

by Chris Fairbairn

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

 Crisis PR failings prove the sensitivity of those hugely important five letters.

Crisis PR Sorry Seems to be the Hardest WordGOOD old Sir Elton John.

He’s been there to help the nation grieve and he’s helped many a dejected soul hit the town in search of romance.

Now his legend status has been well and truly reinforced: It turns out sorry really does seem to be the hardest word.

At least that is how it would appear in the world of business and public life, for it is quite staggering how often those explosive five letters are misused – or bafflingly not used at all.

Below is a collection of examples from 2017 alone that highlight non-apology mishaps from across business and public life.

It serves to highlight that when a crisis hits, knowing how, when and why to apologise is crucial – even potentially business critical. Better to make like Elton and avoid hitting a flat note.

When Doves Cry

To begin with we have a rare example where “sorry” was a little too readily applied, in effect acting as a catalyst for the crisis.

Dove, the skincare brand (often praised for its inclusive campaigns) recently suffered a major red-face and even serious accusations of racism.

A gif, taken from a recent campaign and shared on its social channels appeared to show a black woman become a white woman after applying its product.

Bizarre and incriminating – or so you would think.

Yet the gif was in fact a poorly edited cut of a larger video, showing that women of all backgrounds use the product. A simple misunderstanding, a botched editing job and not a whole lot else.

However the team at Dove, perhaps over-eager to quash the complaint and with good intentions, decided to issue a statement on twitter stating “we deeply regret the offence it caused” – without explaining in any way how the bizarre gif came about.

Quite understandably, scores of Twitter users announced their plans to boycott the brand – an avoidable situation that stemmed from an overeager and too simple an apology, without a meaningful and potentially face-saving explanation.

Big Sam’s Big Play

The disgraced manager’s acutely timed re-appearance in the media in the last month is perhaps on purpose (there happens to be an abundance of vacancies appearing, from Scotland to USA to Leicester City).

Yet Sam Allardyce’s gung-ho approach and apparent u-turn on the apology he issued (after being caught red-handed offering to bend FA rules for a potential cash payment) is not likely to wash with many fans.

Instead, the former Bolton Wanderers Manager and renowned hoof-ball aficionado is likely to drum up accusations of arrogance after suggesting he may sue the FA for damages following his sacking.

Will it land him an interview for one of the many post-World Cup qualifying vacancies? Perhaps, but it certainly hasn’t won him any more friends.

A more apologetic and tactful approach would have backed up his initial apology rather than showing it for what it was: a hollow display as a reaction to being caught red-handed.

Grenfell Disaster

On a much darker note, perhaps the most famous non-apology this year is courtesy of the disgraced Kensington and Chelsea Council.

Taking the advice of lawyers first and foremost – the stunned silence had a hugely detrimental effect on attitudes towards the local authority.

It was obvious from early doors that the wealthy district’s council had at the very least proven to be negligible if not guilty of manslaughter.

Painful scenes including the removal of the chief and the eventual, very late apology, added insult to injury – and only served to unnecessarily heighten anger and prolong upset from within an aggrieved community.

Turbulence in the skies for United Airlines: Crisis PR takes off at major airline – read our insight into the failings at the major airline


The above is a snapshot of 2017’s lowlights – and to save the post from reaching the length of a Greek epic we have discounted the insincere apologies courtesy of stars including: United Airlines, Ryanair, Uber and Pepsi.

All in all we’ve seen pretty clearly how it isn’t done. So how should a business respond, when faced with a clear and damaging crisis?

Without giving too much of the secret formula away, the trick to a simple statement once your business has been deemed culpable for an issue is the following: recognise, regret, resolve.

Once blame is clear and obvious this must be done quickly in an age of constant media. It should not be purposefully short if an explanation is required – or skin-thin and insincere.

It should be carefully worded to show compassion and human emotion and should be written in a fully accessible and simple style.

Provided you manage this, you won’t go too far wrong. Armed with this advice, make sure your business doesn’t become one of the businesses added to the list for next year’s poor apology-makers.

Better still, get in touch with our Edinburgh agency to learn more about how we could help your business rescue the situation during its next crisis.

Do Sir Elton a favour, do not let “sorry” be your hardest word to get right.

Looking for experts in Crisis PR?

Learn how to say sorry in a way that conveys emotion –and protects your business and your staff. Get in touch with our team of communicators and Elton John fans on 0131 561 2244 or by using the form below:

    Your Name (required)

    Your Email (required)


    Your Message


    Chris Fairbairn of Scottish public relations agency, Holyrood PR in Edinburgh

    Chris Fairbairn

    Chris Fairbairn is an Account Director with award-winning public relations agency Holyrood PR. He is part of an expert PR team delivering PR services to a wide range of clients from headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland.

    View Chris's Profile

    Related Posts

    So how can we help?

    Benefit from business video

    Benefit from business video


    Find out how affordable video can bring a host of benefits to your business.

    Make an impact with PR photography

    Make an impact with PR photography

    Find out more

    Every story can be told better with pictures. Discover our affordable, high-impact photo packages.

    Meet the team

    Meet the team

    Our people

    Meet the people who make Holyrood PR what it is, and get an insight into what makes them tick

    If you have any comments or questions, please contact us.


    Keep ahead of your opposition by getting the free tips, insights and secrets we share for businesses. Straight to your inbox, every month.
    Email address
    First Name
    Last Name