Crisis Management 101: Apologizing “If anyone was offended” Will Make the Problem Worse

If you’re lucky enough to helm a business with any level of success, you will eventually offend someone.

I don’t care how many copywriters you employ, or how deft your communications department is. Unless your operation is one person hiding in a shack in the woods without electricity or internet, someone on your team (very likely you) will say or do something stupid.

Fortunately, there’s an easy recipe for a response that will save you most of the time:

  1. Acknowledge the problem to its full extent.
  2. Apologize and accept 100% of the blame.
  3. Explain exactly what you’re doing to make ammends and to prevent a repeat mistake.

“But,” a dark evil little voice in the back of your head will say, “if they only saw it from my perspective, they’d know it wasn’t all my fault. They’d know how those people over there were really at fault. I’m sorry if anyone was offended, but I really don’t think I need to accept the blame. I don’t want people to be mad at me :(”

Dig deep into the pink matter of your brain and find the neuron that thought those words, rip it out with your bare hands, throw it on the sidewalk and cover it with gasoline and set it on fire.

Donald Trump, who you’d think would be an expert at minimizing embarrassing screw ups by this point, learned that lesson the hard way in the wake of his hot mic fracas this Friday night. His first response after the video’s release, which is still live on his website, is a classic attempt to minimize and redirect:

“This was locker room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago. Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course — not even close. I apologize if anyone was offended.”

He doesn’t take responsibility, does not apologize for acting the way he did, and in effect blames anyone who is offended for being thin-skinned. He’s not sorry it happened, he’s sorry you heard about it and overreacted. It’s such a classic ploy that there’s actually a name for it — a non-apology or “ifpology.”

Life as a leader would be easier if that strategy worked, but it most definitely does not. Just watch how the media establishment is making Donald Trump bleed for it

But Donald Trump is far from the first person to make this mistake. Bill Clinton did the same thing after making insensitive remarks about Italian Americans in 1992. CNN Anchor Don Lemon faced a major backlash after issuing a non-apology for an offensive question directed at one of Bill Cosby’s assault victims in 2014.

And you find the same thing outside of politics too. Consider golfer Fuzzy Zoeller’s infamous non-apology after making a racist joke on camera at the expense of Tiger Woods in 1997.

Never make the tempting mistake of minimizing or attempting to redirect righteous anger at a mistake made by you or your company. It’s not going to work, and you’ll make the problem worse. Sandra Fathi from PR News described the proper path to crises resolution clearly and simply when she explained:

Mistakes happen. The steps that corporate executives take to manage issues when they come up will determine their success. An immediate, sincere apology that commits to taking action will resonate with key audiences and influencers and can be effective in mitigating damage and salvaging a reputation. In some instances, an organization’s response to actions can actually build customer loyalty and restore faith.