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Malcolm ColeDirector - Media and Communications

Enough has been said and written about the Will Smith/Chris Rock incident to keep us busy until next year’s Oscars. We certainly don’t intend to get into the debate about what happened and why.

However, having helped many businesses recover from corporate failures ranging from embarrassing to catastrophic, we were interested in Smith’s mealy-mouthed apology when he took to the lectern, and how public attention dragged him to saying sorry the following day.

In truth, Smith’s treatment at the hands of his Hollywood colleagues and the media who want to remain on side with him can only be described as mild.  But they still pressured him to apologise (via Twitter, not in person) in the cold light of day.

It’s a PR truism that people will forgive a mistake if you take responsibility for it.  The three elements to a believable apology are speed, sincerity and satisfaction.

Speed means apologising immediately for an error, not waiting until a situation becomes so intense that your apology is little more than an attempted circuit breaker, and seen as such. For Will Smith, it’s when you get to the microphone straight after your bad behaviour, not the next day on Twitter.

Sincerity means actually meaning you’re sorry – accepting responsibility without any qualification or excuse. (And, by the way, having the guts to front the cameras rather than Tweeting!) It’s reasonable to state the relevant facts, but when you start to rely on those to justify your actions you are no longer being sincere.  Yes, your wife’s health issue is no joking matter. But if you accept you’re in the wrong, you can’t make excuses in the next breath.

Providing satisfaction for the victim means outlining how you intend to make amends for your actions.  For example, in the case of corporate wage underpayments or banking over-charging, the apology needs to be accompanied by an outline of how the company intends to repay and compensate people.

From business to sport to politics and the arts – there have been countless occasions on which prominent people and organisations have been prompted to apologise for their actions in recent years.  If you reflect on them, you’ll find that those whose reputations were rehabilitated best were the ones who acted quickly and sincerely, and genuinely sought to make amends.

Those who were slow to apologise (or completely refused to do so), who were not perceived as genuinely contrite, or who failed to provide adequate satisfaction for their victims are probably still suffering the consequences.

Will Smith may prove the exception to the rule, because the usually opinionated Hollywood glitterati has given him a leave pass that wouldn’t be extended to a sports person or a politician who acted the same way.

For everyone else, the SAS Group is an internationally awarded expert at issues and reputation management.  Contact us to support you through any crisis.

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