When apologising for mistakes, do it right!

Posted on 25 Feb 2022

By Brett de Hoedt

Crossed fingers

Social marketer Brett de Hoedt is a man of 1000 opinions, and he’s here to share his knowledge about campaigns, comms, media and marketing for not-for-profits. Here's his latest commentary.

Brett de Hoedt
Brett de Hoedt

Apologies have never been hotter.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been apologising for his political life and Weber issued a mea culpa for inadvertently emailing out a meatloaf recipe on the day of singer Meat Loaf’s death. (Weber would do anything for lunch, but they won’t do that.)

On the home front, Swimming Australia and Tennis Australia have been getting their corporate humble on in response to various SNAFUs. Swimming Australia scores for clear language.

“The feedback was open and frank and there were experiences recounted that were difficult to read,” it said in a statement.

“We want to reassure those who came forward that the sport is committed to change to ensure these negative experiences are not repeated and apologise unreservedly to those impacted.”

What actually changes remains to be seen.

Language is important when apologising – your stakeholders and critics in particular are likely to parse every line. “If we did any wrong we regret it etc” will not cut it.

Tennis Australia’s statement in response to the Federal Government’s decision to cancel Novak Djokovic’s visa before the Australian Open was by contrast a small glass of tepid, low-fat powdered milk. It says nothing and expresses no real remorse.

For example: “As the Australian tennis family, we recognise that recent events have been a significant distraction for everyone, and we deeply regret the impact this had on all players.”

Martina Navratilova reviewed it thus: “I think it’s one word short of word salad.”

Maybe it’s something about sport – golfer Phil Mickelson issued an apology so vague about his support for a new Saudi-government-backed golf tour that it was not clear if he was apologising for backing the new tour or for comments critical of the Saudi regime. (I’m sure there’s a golf-related pun here somewhere but it’s beyond me.)

More advice:

Timing #1. Be proactive: Your apology will be more powerful if it is self-driven. (The entire Swimming Australia imbroglio began with a tweet from swimmer Maddie Groves rather than any corporate soul searching.)

Timing #2. Be quick: Like vaccine rollouts, apologies are a race!

Any vacuum you create will be filled with the voices of your critics and interpreted as being uncaring. Tennis Australia was flat-footed following the climax of the endless Djokovic saga. Swimming Australia gets marks for its speed off the blocks, diving in with an apology on the same day as the report into its culture was released.

Leaders lead from the front:Tennis Australia chair Jayne Hrdlicka and CEO Craig Tiley are typically a constant media presence during the “Happy Slam”. This year they were nowhere to be found. The situation called for a full, formal press conference.

Apologies are hard to improvise. Plan for your moment of truth with this "quick and sometimes messy guide to apologising".

And if you thrive on apologies try my podcast The Hardest Word – it’s full of real people apologising from across the globe.

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