Three Studies in Public Apologies & Crisis Communications

10.23.2012 | Heather Campbell

One of the major facets of public relations is crisis management. After all, although preventative measures are key, a variety of things can go awry that can negatively impact a company and its brand. Properly addressing errors is as important as preventing errors. One strategy frequently employed by a corporation is a public apology. However, as simple as it may seem, crafting a public apology that will be well received and accepted by the public is no easy feat.

Here are two examples of public apologies done right—and one done very, very wrong.

In a relatively unprecedented move for Apple, Tim Cook openly apologized for the release of a faulty new Apple Maps app that did not remotely match its predecessor’s capabilities.

Tim’s letter exemplifies excellent crisis communication strategy. Tim begins by firmly stating the qualities underlying Apple’s brand (“we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers”) and distinguishing the Apple brand from its faulty Maps App. Tim reminds the reader that the App will continue to improve, and acknowledges feedback graciously and with gratitude.

What really sets this apology apart is Tim’s recommendation of other applications that can do the job better. Tim begins and ends by stating that Apple’s mission is to provide its customers the “best in the world”, and he follows up on that statement by showing customers how they can currently access the best possible experience.

  • Matthew Thornton III, Senior VP of FedEx Express U.S. Operations, “FedEx Response to Customer Video,” December 21, 2011

This apology was issued as a response to a user-uploaded YouTube video, “FedEx Guy Throwing My Computer Monitor,” which was uploaded on December 19, 2011 and currently has more than 8 million views.

FedEx handled the situation perfectly; Its apology, like Tim Cook’s, distinguished the act displayed on the YouTube video from FedEx’s mission and values. Not only was this apology issued, but the customer was met with and personally apologized to. Matthew carefully positions the potentially negative situation by stating that the offending employee is no longer working with customers (he does not imply that the employee has been let go), and that the video is now used as a internal training tool to remind employees that every delivery is “precious cargo”.

The best take away from this apology is that in today’s media landscape, platform is essential. Because this apology was engineered as a response to the original YouTube video, anyone who clicked on the original link would see the response link immediately. This geared the apology to the public and to FedEx’s customers, rather than the media, making it more credible.

  • Tony Hayward, then CEO of British Petroleum, “BP CEO Tony Hayward Issues an Apology for Remarks,” June 2, 2010

The British Petroleum oil spill of 2010 will live on in infamy as the catastrophe it was, and the mishandled corporate crisis communications that followed. At first, BP officially downplayed the spill, referring to it as relatively small (source). When BP did acknowledge the magnitude of the spill, then BP CEO, Tony Hayward, originally delivered a statement to journalists in May of 2010 stating: “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do, I’d like my life back (source).” This apology reflected little remorse and created a public backlash.

In the midst of this poorly worded public apology, Tony issued an additional apology on BP’s Facebook for his original remarks. However, for many it was too little too late.

The lessons to be learned from BP are as follows:

  • Don’t deny. It’s never a good decision to try and downplay something the public is in uproar about, especially if the issue is getting massive media coverage. It will not help your case.
  • Address those impacted. In this case, that would have been those immediately affected by the spill. Complaining about being tired during the midst of a crisis will not get you any points with the public. It is not about you.
  • Select your platform, and stick with it. BP gave public remarks, posted on Facebook, and then created a television ad addressing the issue. People looking for information on the catastrophe were not able to see a cohesive picture from BP as the company’s remarks were scattered in both content and in distribution.

These three examples exemplify how essential crisis communications planning and execution can be. A good PR strategy will take some of the heat off—a great one may help people regain faith in your brand. However, the most important part of any good apology, whether public or otherwise, is always authenticity.

For more on crisis communications from Communique PR, see:

Communique PR Blog >> Crisis Communications

For more on corporate apologies, see:

The Art of the Corporate Apology, Forbes

Best Corporate Apology Ever Posted on Twitter?, AdWeek

Apple’s Map Fail and More Corporate Apologies, The Daily Beast

Tim Cook Apologizes for Apple’s Maps, the New York Times: Bits



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Filed under: Crisis Communications, EXPERTISE, INDUSTRY, Positioning, Reputation Management


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  1. […] management is a way to deal with big issues or an ordeal that happens very suddenly.  As a public relations professional I have learned that it’s better to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes […]

  2. […] think the power of an authentic apology is key in crisis communication and this article  demonstrates some great examples of well thought-out apologies, as well as an example of an […]

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