A comms guide to the ‘sorry not sorry’ statement

Is it ever OK to respond to a breaking story about a mistake your organisation has made – with a joke?

A BBC story about Cardiff Council I read this week, demonstrates that sometimes, using humour can be a great way to diffuse tension.

Somebody at the council found the Christmas tree they had ordered was rather underwhelming:

The response given to the BBC?

“The person who told us the tree was 40m high has since revealed he believes he is 18ft tall,” she said.

“We apologise to everyone who was expecting a bigger tree and are cutting the person responsible down to size.”

This comms team is not denying the mistake, they’re taking the wrap and communicating that they won’t waste time and taxpayer’s money on getting a bigger tree.

But they’re also responding with humour since, in the context of the work they deal with everyday – social services, education, the local economy, streets and roads, bins – this tree thing is pretty small-fry.

The biggest tragedy that’s happened here is citizens feeling mild disappointment in expecting a bigger tree.

Most of the time, reverence and treating the issue seriously is the best course of action

I’m a big believer in the corporate apology.  At any given opportunity, I advise PR people and all sorts of communicators to get comfortable with saying sorry on behalf of their organisation, saying it first, and saying it quickly.

My most popular blog post is a guide to responding to people on social media and people regularly tell me the advice there has worked in gaining trust and rapport.

It’s usually safest and best to focus on the sincerity of your apology – even when you don’t know if you’re at fault or not.

It’s not admitting liability to express regret that some one is upset. But no apology makes you sound uncaring and cold.

All organisations will get something wrong at some point, and when you do, it’s reassuring to onlookers to see that you’re dealing with the issue not ducking away from responsibility.

Being defensive is rarely a strategy that makes you look like you’re in control of a situation.

But like any principle, there’s a grey area with saying sorry, and room for professional judgement.

Sorry not sorry

Like Cardiff Council did here, sometimes you have an opportunity to stand tall, be brave and express personality on behalf of your organisation.

If you have an inkling you want to respond to an issue with a lighter tone, have a think about the following:

  • Was nobody harmed?
  • Was the mistake neither discriminatory nor offensive?
  • Was nobody’s life affected negatively?
  • Have you resolved it?
  • Can you imagine the headline involving the words ‘bungling’, ‘blunder’, ‘cock-up’, or ‘red-faced’?

If the answer to everything here is ‘yes’, then you may be in a situation where you can go with a fun sorry.

My advice for sorry not sorry statements

Stay humble
Self-effacing is probably the most effective form of wit to use here.

Enjoy yourself
If there’s one trait that is universal in all communicators it’s a love of punning.  Indulge your team in five minutes of pun-gathering.  Have a chuckle, we all need a bit of light relief occasionally.

Own it
Remember that there are people who will make everything political, and will seize the chance to show how the mistake is evidence of overall incompetence, corruption or other bad thing.  Those less impartial, possible axe-grinding, people  are entitled to their view but would have a pop whether your apology is straight or jokey.  If you’ve made a measured decision to go with a lighter response, expect that not everyone will like it.

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