Sorry seems to be the easiest word

No apologies for mentioning Barclays again ­ the interbank lending rate scandal continues to dominate headlines and marketers have much to learn from how the banks are handling the furore.

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But the actual subject of this column is apologies. Companies are falling over themselves to say sorry. In the past week alone we’ve had leaders from O2, Olympic security recruitment company G4S and Barclays express remorse.

The reputation management rulebook was rewritten in the past decade following disasters that turned into PR debacles thanks to out-of-touch bosses. The paradigm is Tony Hayward, former group chief executive of BP, with his “I’d like my life back” comment after the Gulf spill.

Now the conventional PR wisdom is to immediately wheel out a corporate figurehead as soon as possible to show regret because it is the expected thing. If a senior executive isn’t eating humble pie within hours of a blunder then the company will go into free fall so the new rulebook says.

But what is an apology worth and what’s the best way of delivering it? The latest round of mea culpas shows the game has definitely moved on from when a stiff Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota, appeared reading a script from an autocue, after a recall of faulty vehicles in 2010. Then you could smell the desperation as the company tried to do the right thing.

Now you can compare and contrast O2 CEO Ronan Dunne’s tweet “To all our affected customers, I’m very sorry. The network is back. My focus now is restoring your confidence and trust”, to Barclays’ broadsheet newspaper ads (not even full page ads ­ why?).

Dunne’s words are targeted, to the point, say what has happened and what will be done. Barclays group chairman Marcus Agius’ words addressed to customers and clients via national press are certainly fulsome. They include “We are truly sorry for what has happened and that you have been let down”. But the glaring omission is what is he apologising for? He doesn’t say.

How can the customer deduce what needs fixing if the bank isn’t saying what is broken? There’s no mention of Libor (admittedly not that easy to explain to the retail bank customer), or possible concealment or possible law-breaking. There is no sign of the transparency that a corporate comms rescue strategy would recommend.

O2 is now detailing on its blog what it is doing to fix the problem with frequent updates. Even G4S has put a figure on the cost of failing to fulfil its recruitment contract and its apology does acknowledge the extra strain it is putting on servicemen. The content of these apologies address concrete issues and acknowledge the distress caused to specific communities.

Blanket corporate apologies can be a double-edged sword and end up mocked, jeered and used against the company at fault. It’s time to be more thoughtful on how the apology dovetails into the whole reputation restoration strategy.

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