Sorry Shouldn’t Be The Hardest Word In PR

by Laura Berry

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Scotland on Sunday, Scott DouglasHolyrood PR scores some unapologetic PR Scotland with advice piece in popular Sunday business supplement.

Regular Scotland on Sunday columnist Michelle Rodger approached Scott Douglas, co director of Holyrood PR to give his views about how organisations should react when the need for apologising arises as part of her business piece on saying sorry.

Scott advises that in a world of real time social media conversations, you have to react quickly, swiftly and appropriately. 

He quotes in the article: “Like it or loathe it, we are living in a real time always on society. The news cycle has contracted to the point where ‘now’ isn’t soon enough. If you think you can still take a night to sleep on a possible apology, think again. You’re either sorry or you’re not. If you are genuinely in the wrong, then say so immediately.”

The full article can be read in the business section of Scotland on Sunday by following this link, or clicking on the thumbnail image to the left.

It uses selected quotes from an interview with Scott – however the full transcript of the Q&A is included below:

Q – Actually recognising you need to apologise is the first step, but many businesses are unaware they should be saying sorry. How do you recognise when an apology is required?
A – Your customers will tell you. This is particularly true in the age of social media.
Businesses which have taken the time to create and nurture a presence online will find clients or customers are quick to praise – but quicker to damn. Fortunately, the court of public opinion is generally a decent barometer.
Failing that, how about listening to your own staff? A business built on trust, transparency and openness will also find its own people willing and able to point out errors.
Many businesses still find it difficult to accept their mistakes until the bottom line is shredded. By then it’s often too late to say sorry.

Q – How important is it to a business to apologise quickly and honestly?
A – Like it or loathe it, we are living in an real-time, always-on society. The news cycle has contracted to the point where ‘now’ isn’t soon enough.
If you think you can still take a night to sleep on a possible apology, think again. You’re either sorry or you’re not. If you are genuinely in the wrong, then say so immediately.
Honesty is absolutely crucial. We’ve all got an innate ability to sniff out an insincere or grudged apology. If you’re not sorry, then don’t say you are. Have the courage of your convictions to defend your actions. At the very least that’ll earn you a bit of respect for owning a spine.

Q – What’s the best way to apologise?
A – To really mean it. Keep it simple, keep it sincere and commit to change.
A great example was in 2009 when two staff at a Domino’s pizza outlet were filmed deliberately contaminating food. As the video went viral, the company said nothing and public confidence and custom imploded.
Eventually Patrick Doyle, the company’s US president issued a personal apology in a simple, no frills YouTube video. It was so clearly heartfelt, impassioned and sincere, it was widely credited with helping the company weather the crisis.
Later though, Domino’s backed up their words with even clearer actions. Any credible apology has to effect change.

Q – Should you have a policy detailing how to respond when mistakes are made?
A – Businesses should absolutely have a policy on responding to mistakes. Ideally it will inform the entire culture.
Something along the lines of: “We’ll do everything in our power to avoid mistakes. When they do happen, we’ll own them, apologise for them, learn from them and move on,” should just about cover it.

Q – Social media has changed the landscape and news of a mistake can spread like wildfire – how should you handle a social apology?
A – The new business reality is that you have to communicate in the way your customers want to.
A reputable PR agency will help a business communicate appropriately across any relevant channel, including the media, email, Twitter or Facebook.
Not all companies are ready, willing or able to be active in social media. However, virtually every business has a website which can be updated.
At the very least, a swift, sincere and simple apology on a company website, will quickly be picked up and spread on social media.

Q – Do you have an example of a situation where a quick apology fixed things before it got out of hand?
A – In February 2010 a rogue employee issued an obscene and offensive Tweet via the well-respected Twitter account of Vodafone UK. At that point the company had more than 8000 followers and the foul-mouthed message was quickly reported across online and mainstream media.
Staff reacted immediately, sending individual apologies to all followers. They worked beyond their hours to ensure customers received an apology and an explanation in real time.
In the hours that followed, Vodafone was widely credited for its speed and honesty – and the number of followers leapt to 9000 in 24 hours.
Now the account has almost 30,000 followers and is a poster child for excellence in customer relations via Twitter.

Scott Douglas is a founding director of Holyrood Partnership and has helped turn it into a multi-award winning public relations and social media agency.

He is also an experienced journalist, blogger, podcaster and media commentator, as well as a successful businessman.

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