TUESDAY 17 FEB 2015 12:34 PM


“Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” Elton John sang in 1976. StockWell Group’s research prize – given to an LSE student who submits original research into corporate reputation – highlights the issues related to public apology and why saying sorry seems so difficult in the corporate setting.

Nina Chung, the winner of this year’s award found that apologies are related to morality and understanding what is right and wrong. They also rely more on actions rather than words. If a company apologises, it must be backed up by actions that support that.

One of her interviewees says, “You need to be good with ‘What’s the right thing to do?, am I truly sorry for what’s happened and how do I make it right?’ And that will take you down a proper course of action... the public relations aspect will fall into place, if you begin by doing the right thing.” Corporate apologies, Chung finds, are no new thing, yet they came to light in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis as business scandals damaged the reputation of entire industries. Public apologies in that context were akin to an admission of guilt, thus making it more difficult for companies to issue them.

Social media, however, has exacerbated the need for transparency and the ability for whistleblowers to share information with the public, essentially increasing the need for corporate apologies to be communicated effectively and in the right context, Chung says.

Apologies however, are not always a negative communications tactic. They can become an act of leadership. One interviewee says, “The ones that are willing to take the risk and bear all and take the criticism and respond to it, and change, actually become better businesses. But it takes businesses a long time to even know that, even when it affects their bottom line.”

One of the crucial aspects Chung highlights in regards to corporate apologies is that it is easy to say ‘sorry,’ but difficult to accept corporate responsibility – if indeed it is merited – for a problem.

In the end, Chung finds that corporate public apologies are about change. They must “Prove a break between past and future,” she writes. An interviewee adds, “The apology isn’t the end of it. It’s the beginning.” Communicating when an apology is called for is only the first step, as with any apology, the company must be sincere and must back up that apology with the actions to correct the mistake. Though ‘sorry’ is easy to say, like Elton John says, it’s hard to mean.