PR, risk management and saying sorry

An interesting post: Should Companies Apologize? from Boyd Neil at Hill & Knowlton Canada (via Judy Gombita) regarding how PR practitioners need to work with legal counsel in crisis situations reminds me of a recent discussion among automotive PR managers who are increasingly required to address liability and health & safety issues in respect of car loans and launch events with the media.

In the UK, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act came into force in April 2008, under which “companies, organisations and, for the first time, government bodies face a criminal offence and larger fines if they are found to have caused death due to their gross corporate health and safety failures”.

The HSE explains that:

Companies and organisations that take their obligations under health and safety law seriously are not likely to be in breach of the new provisions. Nonetheless, companies and organisations should keep their health and safety management systems under review, in particular, the way in which their activities are managed or organised by senior management:

If an incident occurs “Juries may also consider whether a company or organisation has taken account of any appropriate health and safety guidance and the extent to which the evidence shows that there were attitudes, policies, systems or accepted practices within the organisation that were likely to have encouraged any such serious management failure or have produced tolerance of it.”

PR has traditionally involved a very flexible approach, but the new law highlights a need for issues surrounding corporate liability to be considered and procedures put in place.  That includes taking a more robust approach to risk management.

Some steps can be quite small – for example, I gather that many restaurants no longer top up wine glasses as this could be construed as contributing towards excessive alcohol consumption.  So maybe PR practitioners likewise needs to ensure they are not encouraging their guests to drink irresponsibly.

This may sound ridiculous – and when working with colleagues in H&S or the legal department, there can be differences of perspective (as Boyd highlights).  My contacts had experienced this when their companies decided to introduce liability forms which journalists are required to sign to acknowledge their own responsibilities as well as defining those of the organisation when borrowing press cars or attending media events.

When written by legal departments, such documents are invariably in a style of language that is intimidating and makes the reader feel unwilling to sign without legal advice.  However, the PR guys found that if they draft the documents and then work with their legal advisors, the end result gained more acceptance among the media.

The same applies when advising senior counsel on how to respond in crisis.  The legal team is unlikely to be able to craft statements that are publicly acceptable in the same way that expert PR communicators can (with professional legal oversight).

PR should also counsel against the non-apology (as seen frequently in US election campaigns) – which basically says we are sorry if you’ve been offended/affected… rather than actually apologising for the organisation’s actions.  I always feel this adds insult to injury as not only has someone been impacted, but they are made to feel guilty for recognising this.

However, as with the political apology, perhaps it is not surprising that there are many strategies conceived by which you can say sorry without perhaps really meaning it.  In my experience that’s a skill accomplished by many 4 year olds, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if either lawyers or PR practitioners counsel the ambiguous apology either.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

One thought on “PR, risk management and saying sorry”

  1. one other suggestion, if i may…when apologizing (to the extent the lawyers will allow) try to add an explanation, as in:

    “we’re sorry we did that; and the reason it occurred was…”

    the logic here being that you can acknowledge the error and additionally let the puiblic know how you think about the issue in a way that might be deeper than the sound bytes that you’re facing in the opposing media.

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