How (not) to apologise – Oil, Uber and Ball Tampering

Everyone makes mistakes.  In fact, human error is possibly one of the biggest causes of business failure today.  How you respond to an error can be the difference between disruptive and disastrous.

A poor apology can do further and irreparable harm to your reputation.   However a well-constructed apology delivered genuinely will not only minimise reputational damage but may even raise your profile in a more positive way than ever before.

Let’s first look at how not to apologise.

CEO of BP, Tony Hayward was responding to a massive oil spill in March 2010 and delivered one of the worst corporate apologies I have ever heard.  His words were:

We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I want my life back.”

The next day he had to ‘apologise for his apology’ but the damage was done.


More recently we have seen some rippers in the news.  Let’s take the Stefanovic brothers’ apology after being caught talking about their colleagues on loud speaker in an Uber.  In his apology Karl Stefanovic said:

 “[Peter and I] talk a hundred times a day and hardly ever about work.  But we did, and the conversation was recorded. And we are sorry. I was angry with myself at first that I could be so stupid… I’ll be taking cabs from now on.”

Most commentary around this called it a ‘carefully constructed apology’ but I disagree.

Karl said he was angry that he could be so stupid – because he said those things or because he got caught?  And saying he will be ‘taking cabs from now on’ isn’t an apology.  It is like saying “I’ll continue to talk about my colleagues but it won’t be in an Uber in case I’m overheard”.”

Maybe Channel 9 and its audiences are more forgiving but it doesn’t sound sincere at all for me.


On the flip side (excuse the pun), former Captain of the Australian Cricket Team, Steve Smith, has apologised for his role in the ball-tampering scandal.    He issued a full and heartfelt apology accepting full responsibility and demonstrating genuine remorse.

“I don’t blame anyone. I’m the captain of the Australian team,” Smith said. “I made a serious error of judgment and I now understand the consequences. It was a failure of leadership. Of my leadership.”

Not only will Smith be forgiven but media reports are claiming Smith should “expect a standing ovation when he next walks out to bat in an Australian uniform”.

Whoever scripted that one deserves a pat on the back.

So what can you do to make a good apology?

Be credible

The apology has to come from the person who made the error or the most senior person in an organisation where a company issue has occurred, not read out by someone unrelated to the issue.  The apology must have meaning and demonstrate genuine remorse in the content and the delivery.

Take responsibility

Own your mistake, take responsibility and acknowledge the damage or hurt caused.  Apologise for what you did, not just the effect it had.  For example, don’t say “we are sorry if we offended anyone” – it implies you may not have offended anyone.  In addition, you haven’t apologised for the actual error.

Don’t make excuses

“It was out of my control” or “I didn’t know this was going on” will simply not cut it.

Take action

Commit to further investigation, more resources or training, stricter standards – whatever it takes to fix the problem, reduce the risk or prevent the situation from ever occurring again.

Timing is everything

Don’t sit on an issue hoping it will blow over. There is so much wrong with that approach.  Respond as soon as possible, preferably within the first hour but only if you have all the facts.  A prompt response is recommended before speculation and rumour take over.

Use the right channels

If it broke on twitter, apologise on twitter but don’t limit your apology to one medium.  You need to go where the banter is in order to respond effectively.

Seek legal advice

If the error could result in legal action then seek the advice of a professional.  I would recommend running any statements by a lawyer as a precaution.


If you do it right, not only will a good apology set you on the right course again but can potentially see you in a better position than when you started.  You may retain and even gain new customer loyalty in the process.