A reputation is the most valuable thing a brand can carelessly ruin. So you need to carefully manage the results of your actions, what you say and what your audiences say about your brand publicly. This is where the public apology comes in; although it cannot undo the harm caused, it can help to reinstate your reputation.

Considering how visible your brand is to the public, and in the age of social media where things can spread in an instance, it would be foolish to think that apologies don't matter when dealing with a crisis.

Rebuilding your reputation takes a long time but you can lose it in the blink of an eye. This shows you how significant a reputation is for brands.

As American businessperson and philanthropist Warren Buffett says, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."

And that's exactly where public apologies come in.  

Let's get right into the heart of the matter:

Why public apology matters

"Apologise" — a lesson we've been taught since a very young age. One that is often not immediately applied in a business crisis.

Being transparent and accountable is not an option for brands, it's a must. An apology allows you to be honest, and maintain your integrity by communicating proactively and admitting your wrongdoing.

Also, communicating with your audiences as soon as you realise you've messed up shows that you are accountable; you resolve issues before they escalate or cause more harm to your brand.

It also helps you outline what you have learned from the crisis and what measures you are going to take to correct the situation. Additionally, it helps you gain credibility because your audiences will trust you again when you rectify your mistakes and ensure that you will not repeat them.

If the apology was compassionate and exhibits empathy, your brand will gain back the trust of its consumers and your image will be on the road to recovery.

Let's look at the Clicks PR nightmare from 2020 as an example:

South African retailer Clicks came under fire following an advert that was deemed racist. The advert depicted black  hair as 'dry' and 'damaged' while white hair was labelled as 'normal' and 'fine'. Immediately after the incident, several Clicks stores were raided and forced to close by protesters, including political parties.

Clicks Group CEO, Vikesh Ramsunder immediately issued an apology for the offensive depictions, which shows that they are transparent by quickly attending to the crisis. The apology demonstrates sincerity and remorse as they use words like "I apologise unreservedly." This shows that the brand was able to acknowledge and take responsibility for its actions. 

Not only did they apologise but also took further steps to resolve the problem and ensure that it didn't happen again. 

The brand also clearly stated in its public apology that the crisis highlighted a need to audit all promotional material for any implicit or explicit biases. It promises to also introduce a diverse and inclusive training programme for its head offices. So, what should brands take from this? In an apology, you don't just simply say "sorry" but take corrective action to show regret.

Even though the brand's reputation was in tatters, the apology assisted in repairing and giving back some of its value.

What makes a good public apology

I think most brands would agree on this! When in crisis, it is hard to admit you are wrong even though you may realise that your actions may have offended your audience — a defence mechanism often jumps in to justify your actions.

As shown in the Clicks example, even when you do apologise, simply saying "I'm sorry" isn't enough. Here's the right way to do it:
  • Expression of regret: As a brand, you need to show remorse and empathy so that your audiences or customers believe that you are truly sorry.
  • Explain what went wrong: Although your explanation might sound like an excuse, it is better to tell your side of the story so that there is mutual understanding of what led to the crisis.
  • Acknowledge responsibility: Take responsibility for your actions as a company; own it by showing that you have learned from your mistake.
  • Make sure it never happens again: After you have taken responsibility, show signs of change in behaviour to ensure that the same mistake will not transpire. 
  • Offer of repair: If there is anything you can do to amend or fix the situation, do it. Taking further steps to fix the crisis shows your customers that you are working hard to resolve the issue and rebuilding the broken relationship.
  • Timing is crucial: As soon as you've realised that you are in a crisis, it shouldn't take you too long to apologise as it may increase the chances of your apology not being accepted or well received by your audiences. An apology delayed may be an opportunity lost for you as a brand.
What does it take to deliver a proper public apology and the benefits thereof? Let us know in the comments section below.

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