SORRY,’ YOU ARE NOT SORRY: Why Apology Is Not Always Enough

By Ishola Ayodele
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.
In November this year, a luxury Spanish label ‘Balenciaga’ released two campaigns on its website. The first campaign released on the 16th of November was a photograph 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 of November, a bag is positioned on top of a poorly disguised document from a 2008 US 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 travelled from the internet to mainstream media like Fox News. In response, Balenciaga withdraw the campaign and issued an apology in which it called the campaign a “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 a boycott of the label’s products. Balenciaga’s apology was met with scepticism 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 an 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 is performed.
In 2020, during the middle of the lockdown measure deployed by the Nigerian government to curb the spread of the deadly Covid-19 virus. Funke Akindele, a popular Nigerian actress hosted a birthday party at her home in Lagos with invited guests in violation of this lockdown regulation. 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 directive of the government, many people argued that Funke Akindele not only endangered 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 Akindele’s actions. In the end, Funke Akindele suffered the loss of endorsement deals and a decline in her public image. She was also arrested, tried and sentenced for flouting a social distancing order (but was granted a state pardon). After this, she did another apology video and she was pardoned by the public.
Again, an apology laced with emotion and empathy also failed to mitigate Funke Akindele’s crisis. So, again why? The reason is simple, in both case studies the guilty parties are either directly or indirectly insulting 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 logically insane to tell people to trust you when you have just caused them harm or violated their expectations. The fact is that these apologies and others like them whether it is embedded in emotion or empathy is not sincere. A study published 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?
The truth is that we cannot know how sincere our apology is but what we know from case studies and stream of research are that ‘Sorry’ or ‘I am Sorry’ is not an Apology: It is a step in the Apology process. A sincere apology takes great courage because it reveals what most leaders, brands and organizations 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 organizations 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 organizations 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.
Sympathy-Oriented Apology doesn’t work: Many times, when leaders or organizations tender apologies in crisis, they do so just to attract public sympathy in order to stop negative comments, customers boycott or the bleeding of clients. This has always proven ineffective in mitigating crises as demonstrated by the case studies above. 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 a sympathy-oriented apology has little or no impact in reducing public anger, negative impression, and distrust during a crisis.
Crisis doesn’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 crises is 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 have proven. And as we can see from the Balenciaga crisis, the massive outrage started when a Twitter user highlighted the negative latent implications of Balenciaga’s campaign and other Twitter users 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 have any influence on the relationship between apologies and repair 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 transgressor’s trustworthiness was also found to be influenced by stakeholders’ emotions. Therefore, it is safe to say from empirical and case studies we know the factors which influence stakeholders’ perception of a transgressor’s sincerity in a crisis.
In conclusion, 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 human.
A leader, brand or Organization needs to build a deeply rooted relationship with stakeholders and crisis. In building relationships with stakeholders most people will understand but in building relationships with crises only a 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 a crisis but they would struggle to fathom how a Brand or an organization can be human in a crisis situation. And this again is doable and it has been done by several organizations in the past it is just that it has not been a systematic approach up until now. 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 organizations understand and internalize the import of the CRISIS RELATIONSHIP GRID and how their organizations can be more HUMANLY in crisis using the 4Ps Model.
Ishola Ayodele is an award-winning strategic communication strategist who specializes in helping Leaders, Brands and Organizations communicate in a way that yields the desired outcome. Sent via