Five of the worst public apology fails and one winner

by Stratton Craig

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We recently looked at how to say sorry in business and why it is so important in the age of social media. Well we’ve taken a look into the archives to uncover some of the least successful public apologies – and an example that highlights how it should be done.
Henry IV freezes in the snow
Sometimes actions speak louder than words. This was certainly the intention of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV when he set out in 1077 to beg for forgiveness after he had questioned Pope Gregory VII’s authority by appointing his own bishops. Three days of kneeling in the snow was all it took for the Pontiff to accept his apology, but less than three years later Henry IV had another change of heart and deposed Pope Gregory VII.
Lesson learnt: There’s no point apologising if you don’t plan on sticking to your word.
Obama buries apology in bill
In December 2009 American President Barack Obama signed the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act in private. On the face of it this was a relatively mundane piece of news. Except that on page 45 was an apology to the Indigenous peoples of America – known as the Native American Apology Resolution – for the ‘many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” Pretty serious stuff we’re sure you’ll agree, so an apology hidden deep inside another bill doesn’t really cut it in our opinion.
Lesson learnt: Don’t demean an apology by hiding it within something else.
The Dominos crisis of 2009
When two employees made a video of them putting cheese up their nose and other pranks in a Dominos kitchen, the pizza delivery chain took more than 48 hours to react. Worried that a public apology would alert more people to the video, they instead took the silent option. Until it all became too much and they had to speak out, by which time the damage had been done.
Lesson learnt: Don’t hang about; you’ve got to react within 24 hours.
Network Rail 2014 Christmas travel trouble
When engineering work overran around Christmas last year, King’s Cross had to remain closed on one of the busiest travel days of the festive period. Absolute chaos ensued as Finsbury Park went into meltdown and many people were left stranded and unable to travel. Network Rail managing director for network operations, Robin Gisby, apologised for the delays but pinned most of the blame on signalling issues and broken down machinery which just made people angrier.
Lesson learnt: Don’t hide behind excuses.
Lance Armstrong’s seven sins
Ah yes; Mr Armstrong, one of the most infamous figures to ever grace the world of sport. Stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after admitting to doping, Armstrong said: “I view this situation as one big lie I repeated a lot of times.” His apology didn’t exactly wash with all those people he conned and cheated, not to mention the staff of his Livestrong Foundation charity.
Lesson learnt: Sometimes there are no words to fix the mess.
And a more successful attempt?
Public apologies are meant to draw attention away from the problem, which is why many of the most successful apologies are quickly forgotten. But when storms forced the cancellation of more than 1,000 flights in 2007, the JetBlue CEO and founder created a video to apologise virtually face-to-face to the travellers who were affected. It was one of the first apologies of its kind and the promises he put in place helped to reassure and appease customers.
Can you remember a good or bad public apology? Share them with us by leaving a comment below or tweeting us @strattoncraig

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