‘Sorry’, as Elton John was keen to remind us in 1976, ‘seems to be the hardest word’.
And if it’s difficult enough to utter privately, it is, perhaps, even more challenging to say in public.
But that’s precisely what the American owner of Liverpool Football Club John Henry did last week, in the furore over the doomed attempt to create a European Super League.
People saying sorry publicly usually hide behind two words in their statements to the press – the first of which is “apologise”.
There’s a subtle difference between saying ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologise’. An apology is a formal admission of wrongdoing which may or may not be said from the heart. This means that the person concerned may or may not feel remorseful – it’s hard to tell. But saying “sorry” is usually seen as a more genuine admission of regret.
The second tactic often used is to call upon collective responsibility – simply by using the word “we” – to spread the guilt amongst a range of people, none of whom is identified individually.
So when I heard John Henry’s opening words, “I want to apologise to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club…”, I was expecting the usual bland sentiments, couched in vague and unemotional terms, with any blame attributed to the group as a whole, rather than him personally.
But within seconds it was clear that this wasn’t going to be that sort of statement:
“I want to apologise to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I caused over the past 48 hours… In this endeavour, I’ve let you down. Again, I’m sorry – and I alone am responsible for the unnecessary negativity brought forward over the past couple of days. It’s something I won’t forget.”
It’s true to say that the fans won’t forget either; saying sorry like this doesn’t automatically get you off the hook. But what it can do is shorten the likely period of retribution. His words can later be used as proof that the expressed remorse was genuine. There will be those who will quite reasonably argue: ‘He said sorry quickly and honestly and shouldered all the blame himself. What more do you want?’
From a media training perspective, saying “sorry” should always be a planned, considered response, never uttered on the hoof. As my colleague Catherine Cross, an expert in crisis communications points out, “If your company or organisation is likely to face law suits as a result of the crisis, the legal team will very quickly become involved. There are cultural and legal differences in each country but often lawyers, particularly those for companies with operations in the US, have argued that the specific word “sorry” implies responsibility so should be avoided.
“In fact, before the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, lawyers often argued that it was safest not to comment at all. However, in the last 10 years, particularly with the power of social media to whip up anger and offence, companies now have to balance the implications for the court of law with the court of public opinion. Both can result in your organisation’s bottom line (or operations) taking a serious hit.
“Part of an organisation’s crisis management planning is defining different types of crises so staff understand the subtle differences needed in approach and chose their words accordingly. Sometimes the most lawyers will only let a company say is that it is “sorry for the inconvenience caused…” or that it “deeply regrets” an incident took place. With my journalist’s hat on that can sound slightly like weasel words, but with my PR/trainer hat on I accept that they may be as much as you can say at that time.”
Nevertheless, there’s a common theme running through all this: saying sorry is problematic.
Six years after Elton’s song hit the charts, American rock band Chicago released the power ballad ‘Hard to say I’m sorry’, in 1982.
They’re right, it is.
But sometimes – on certain specific and carefully considered occasions – it might just be the very best response you can give.
John Henry Feature Image: By Webjedi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20976361
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