TOP Talk

How CEOs Should (and Shouldn't) Make a Public Apology


Everywhere you look these days, people of all varieties just can't seem to get an apology right and, as a result, end up doing their personal or corporate brands more harm than good.

In my view, the art of a good apology is grossly underrated. It's not just about taking responsibility; it's about squaring yourself with your audience, retaining their trust and staying in alignment with them. A botched apology can set a brand back years and in some cases do irreparable harm. So what are some mistakes we can all learn from? Here's a quick sampling “ripped (as they say) from the headlines.”

Sorry…Nobody's home, please come back later.

Recently, Mt. Gox, the most established exchange for the enigmatic currency, Bitcoin, went down. Unfortunately, exchange glitches aren't exactly unheard of –the NASDAQ experienced a three-hour trading halt last August – but this one held special import due to the general skepticism around the viability of Bitcoin itself. So when the company went dark along with the exchange, things unraveled quickly. Instead of being out in front on the matter, letting industry watchers and Bitcoin advocates know what was happening and how the company planned to stabilize things, Mt. Gox closed the shutters, drew the blinds and went quiet. In the absence of any company communication, rumors swirled. To make matters worse, the company removed all tweets from its Twitter account and left callers listening to hold music before finally filing for bankruptcy protection. The exchange is hoping to make a comeback, but that promises to be an uphill battle.

Sorry…but not REALLY.

The most tempting (and I would argue the most common) error when dealing with a misstep is failing to take full responsibility by pointing the finger at someone or something else. But this rarely works. If it's your business or organization and the mistake happens to your customers on your watch, you are the one held accountable…period.

Governor Christie is a pretty good example of this. Just looking at his initial response to “bridge-gate,” Christie attempted to step out early with an apology and take responsibility as New Jersey's top executive (good), but then cast himself as the victim of a rogue employee (bad). It doesn't help to try and deflect, because when you do, your audience is left with the impression that you've lost control - which is never a good outcome. These half-hearted apologies often lead to extended news cycles if they hint at some underlying flaw in the public figure. Case in point, Mr. Christie's problems continue to mount.

Sorry…too little, too late.

People generally understand that bad things happen and everyone makes mistakes. But if you don't own up to a mistake early and address your errors, it will be that much harder and take you that much longer to recover. I'm a customer of Target, and the first time I received any communication from the company about its data breach problems was a full month after the news had broken publicly. Their offer of a year of free credit monitoring was appreciated – and their message of “zero liability for our guests” was fantastic, but that message didn't reach me until way too late. I would have appreciated a strong statement about the company's concern for its customers, and how it was going about fixing the problem, right when it happened.

The only video interview I could find on the subject with Target's CEO took place on CNBC, which clearly was aimed at reaching investors first and foremost, not the average Target shopper. This Mashable coverage of their apology shows that they eventually found their footing, but I'm sorry to say, I've lost a little bit of that lovin' feeling for the retailer.

When things go wrong, just steal a line from Elton, “What do I gotta do to make you love me?” Here's what you gotta do:

  • Clearly and truthfully state the mistake and OWN IT
  • Apologize in a timely and succinct manner and MEAN IT
  • Explain how you plan to make it right and DO IT

Data shows that trust matters: the trusted organizations typically reap greater shareholder value and an ability to bounce back from missteps more quickly than their less trusted brethren. The art of the sincere apology isn't a soft skill any longer. It's something all leaders need to master in an increasingly transparent business world.

For more edifying examples, here are links to two great collections of CEO apologies:


Sue Parente

About Sue Parente

What inspires me? Brave communicators who dare to put "right" before "safe."