Oct. 28, 2021 — Just like clockwork, in the hours immediately after a crisis makes headlines, many so-called experts insist an apology is the key to survival for the potentially responsible party, even before some, if not all, the facts are known.
The thinking goes something like this: The sooner an organization apologizes, the quicker angry stakeholders can move on and the process of restoring confidence and trust can begin.
Crisis communications, however, is not paint-by-numbers, one-size-fits-all discipline. Yes, there are best practices. And yes, an apology can often bring an end to certain crisis situations. That’s especially true when blame is easily determined, such as failing to meet a deadline or making an ill-advised decision. But blindly issuing an apology before a root cause analysis can be conducted is risky business.
Early information often inaccurate or misleading
Take, for example, the release of crude oil from the Amplify Energy Corp., pipeline off the coast of Huntington Beach, Calif. At first, critics complained the CEO’s pledge to work with responders to conduct the recovery effort as quickly as possible was a “non-apology apology.” Others said the company needed to disclose its responsibility for the incident as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, officials launched a criminal investigation and a class-action lawsuit was announced. In addition, reporters focused on Amplify’s safety record, including fines totaling $85,000 in connection with two instances that led to worker injuries and 125 compliance violations.
Not surprisingly, Amplify’s share price fell more than 60 percent immediately after the pipeline leak.
But two weeks later, investigators said the 13-inch crack in Amplify’s pipeline was likely caused by a ship’s anchor dragging along the ocean floor. In addition, they said the leak might have begun as much as a year ago.
Imagine if Ampify’s CEO had apologized in the early hours of the crisis amid the torrent of criticism his company faced. Imagine if he had accepted responsibility for an incident that was likely caused by another party.
Credibility at stake
Whatever goodwill Amplify might have been gained immediately after the incident would have been overwhelmed by the loss of trust in the company when investigators said they were “pretty confident” the pipeline encased in concrete was struck by an anchor or anchors “several months to a year ago,” citing marine growth on the damaged pipeline.
No doubt Amplify faces difficult questions, including why it was unaware of a crack in its pipeline for as much as a year. And the company’s two news releases in two weeks that offered nothing more than a continued commitment to cooperate with officials did little to promote transparency. This lack of candor included a “no comment” when asked when the company shut down its pipeline in the wake of the leak.
Nonetheless, the company didn’t succumb to the chorus calling for an apology, which, by definition, in addition to expressing remorse, includes accepting responsibility. No matter the overwhelming pressure, issuing an apology before a root cause is determined has the potential to make a bad matter worse, including the loss of credibility.