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Should sorry always be the hardest word?

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It was Elton John (and, lest we forget, the criminally underrated boyband Blue) who famously sang the line “sorry seems to be the hardest word.” For years, this was certainly true of our politicians, who, whenever faced with calls to apologise, would perform all manner of verbal contortions in their desperation to avoid uttering the dreaded S-word. They would express “regret”, offer their “deepest sympathy” or talk of “lessons to be learned”, but never, ever, say sorry.

That all changed with former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s ill-fated attempt to seek the forgiveness of students for his party’s infamous decision to break its 2010 General Election manifesto pledge not to increase tuition fees. Unfortunately for Mr Clegg, his belated show of contrition – which took the form of a cringeworthy and widely mocked video of him announcing he was “sorry” – attracted almost as much vitriol as the original sin itself.

So you can understand why companies might be a little wary about saying sorry when they find themselves in the metaphorical firing line. Although our main role as a PR agency is to spread positive messages about our clients, occasionally we are required to defend them in the face of public criticism – whether that be from an unhappy customer or the wider public. And in such circumstances, I often find myself asking the question: “Should we say sorry?”

Some companies, like the politicians of old, are instinctively opposed to the very notion. To them, an apology is akin to an open – and in some cases, unnecessary – admission of guilt, something best avoided in this litigious age. Similarly, many companies follow the “keep it brief” mantra when responding to media enquiries, believing that the less they say, the less chance they have of incriminating themselves.

In my previous life as a local newspaper journalist, I received many such statements issued by press officers on behalf of companies or public sector organisations which were clearly the product of such an approach. And almost every time, as I added the brief, robotic, matter-of-fact one line statement to the bottom of my article, underneath the searing quotes of anger, disgust and heartbreak from the person or people whose criticism it was supposedly responding to, the same thought crossed my mind: “How inadequate.”

Which probably explains why, when I moved onto the other side of the PR-journalism fence, I was especially keen to make any statements I issued on behalf of our clients longer, more detailed and more ‘human’ than the ones I had become accustomed to receiving. And nothing shows you care more than saying sorry.

Or at least, that’s what I thought. But in reality, it’s not quite that simple. Of course, every situation is different, and there are circumstances in which an apology is appropriate or even essential. But a company that is constantly saying sorry every time it is on the receiving end of criticism runs the risk of looking not only insincere, but inept and weak too.

It’s important for companies to show understanding – and in some cases, empathy – towards those criticising them, but apologising won’t always earn you the respect or appreciation that you crave. Just ask Nick Clegg.

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