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‘Conditional’ apologies won’t wash, says PR expert
Pic: Shutterstock

24 Nov 2020 / business Print

Legal and comms needs will often clash in times of crisis

Firms should not attempt to 'do PR' in the middle of a crisis or scandal, an MH&C LLP webinar heard this morning.

The discussion on crisis management for HR managers heard that tension can often arise between conflicting advice from communications experts and lawyers.

Steer away from PR

Eoghan Tomás McDermott, managing director of the Communications Clinic, said that a firm in crisis should steer away from pointing out the jobs it supports, or saying how good its corporate social responsibility programme is.

“This might be self-evident, but sometimes it needs to be said: don’t lie. You have to tell the truth," he continued.

“Don’t minimise wrongdoing by calling it a mistake, or shirk responsibility,” he said.

If you have done something wrong, say so, because that gives the opportunity to move on, he continued.

Ineffective apologies

He also warned against ‘conditional’ apologies and said the public will see through these, therefore they are ineffective.

Remember the ‘four A’s’, he advised – apologise, acknowledge, attend, and act, because all four are the components of a complete apology. 

“Apologise, acknowledge what you did was wrong, attend to the situation and don’t rush away, and act to fix the mistake,” he explained.

However, the webinar heard that lawyers may take a different view on apologies, and acknowledging a fault or responsibility, because it could affect the prospects of defending any subsequent claim.

Conflicting advice

“My view is if you have to make an apology, it has to be a full apology,” McDermott said.

MH&C partner Paul Rochford said there may well be conflicting pieces of advice within an organisation, with one urging an apology to protect a business’ reputation, and a lawyer warning against admitting liability.

“Be aware there are tough decisions to be made,” he said.

“That is the difficult decision that organisations are going to have to make."

Assess risk

The priority is to assess the risk with each course of action and set them in order, he said, since reputational damage may financially destroy a company.

MH&C lawyer Ian O’Herlihy said that there are often no ‘no-risk’ options available.

Company insurers may have to be consulted in a crisis situation, he said, but they can be surprising receptive to the offer of an apology.

“I have been pleasantly surprised on behalf of clients in this sort of situation where the insurers have recognised that an apology may facilitate, in the wider sense, a resolution of the matter, rather than no statement at all, or worse still, a denial, when the facts point to wrongdoing," he said.

Sophisticated approach 

A sophisticated approach needs to be taken, he continued.

O’Herlihy said there is a world of difference between companies which have done preparation for crisis situations, and those which haven’t.

With media knocking on the door and people in a panic, prior crisis planning will pay off, he said.

This prep should include the prior appointment of a crisis management team which has rehearsed its allocated roles.

Business risk

“Have a plan or policy that identifies any potential risk to the business, and business impacts," O’Herlihy advised.

Train the team members in advance so they know what their role is, he continued.

And draw up a list of relevant people and their contact details. 

“You also need rehearsal,” he said. 

Practice fire drills are a familiar routine in many businesses, but few will suffer an actual fire, compared to much larger number of firms that will have a communications crisis of some type, he pointed out.



Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland