Is it too late now to say sorry?

Lessons in how not to apologise from Donald Trump and Elon Musk

It takes guts to make an apology. We’ve all been there. Recognising that something we have said or done has caused offence or damage, or has been plain wrong. How you respond to those situations can make or break how people perceive you. It can regain trust and respect, but if not dealt with swiftly and adeptly can have precisely the opposite effect.

Step forward Donald Trump and Elon Musk. 

Both men have had to make apologies this week after their respective faux pas. President Trump’s belated explanation of his ‘misspoken’ wording in Russia and Musk’s enforced apology to British cave diver Vern Unsworth serve as perfect examples of how not to halt a backlash.

Reputation management forms the backbone of any communications role, whether in-house or agency-side. It is why companies like ours are in business. Three main qualities are required for public apologies: timeliness, sincerity and clarity.

Timing is imperative. The moment that any backlash becomes apparent – which in the cases of Trump and Musk was immediate and widespread – urgent action is required. Waiting hours can be harmful, but leaving things festering for days (as Elon Musk has done) shows a flagrant ignorance for the issue at hand.

You need to be sincere. If a corrective statement is made with reluctance and reticence, it will not have the desired outcome. Again, with Trump and Musk, there is always a feeling of ‘I’ll apologise but it’s not my fault’. There is always an excuse, or apportion of blame. If you mean it, show that you mean it. Get in front of a camera. And quickly!

Once you’ve made your apology, in timely fashion and with meaning, clarify your remarks with something that will begin the healing process and restore faith and trust. Only then can everyone move on.

Politicians are especially fond of starting sentences with ‘let me be clear’, often a precursor for something that is anything but. If your messages and statements are carefully constructed, planned and prepared, with input from communications experts, then your comments will be clear from the outset.

No need for deleted tweets or belated, emotionless apologies. There’s also the question of getting the right spokesperson, but that’s another matter entirely…