The dos and don’ts of issuing a public apology: a guide for CEOs

Nobody likes admitting they are wrong. Several recent high-profile mishaps show that the art of drafting a public apology is not always well understood. But your business could depend on it.

Below are some dos and don’ts.

Do acknowledge the mistake and include the words “I am sorry” in the apology

Acknowledging the mistake and apologising are crucial. There is a subtle but important difference between saying, “I apologise” and “I am sorry”. A sincere “I am sorry” can limit the damage.

After a colossal error of judgement shut down its systems for nearly a week, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman publicly apologised. He also announced an amendment to the airlines customer bill of rights that specifies if there are any delays, customers will be compensated. “We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry,” said Neeleman. No equivocating there!

Don’t take your time to issue an apology

When a company faces a public crisis as a result of its action or inaction, the quieter it is, the more livid the public becomes. This is typically driven by the fear that admitting wrongdoing means admitting liability. Usually, however, such inaction catches up with the firm. This was the case with airbag manufacturer Takata Corporation. Its faulty manufacturing processes produced airbags containing metal fragments, resulting in injuries – and, in some cases, death – when airbags exploded. It took a decade for the company to take responsibility for this error, with severe consequences for Takata’s reputation.

Do put effort into the apology

The apology should come from the CEO to show that the matter is being taken seriously. It should address the situation and show empathy for what happened. And it should reassure the public that the incident will not happen again.

Mark Zuckerberg tends to draft lengthy but earnest public apologies when malfunctions occur on Facebook. But as controversy surrounding the spread of “fake news” has grown, Facebook’s response has often been found wanting.

Don’t add fuel to the fire

Do not default to knee-jerk defence of the brand. This can do more harm than good, as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz recently discovered after Chicago aviation police violently ejected passenger Dr David Dao from a plane. Munoz fuelled broader public outrage over airlines’ abuse of customers when he declared: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

This cold failure to apologise directly and accept responsibility contributed to a steep decline in United’s stock price.

Avoid phrases such as “I apologise if anyone was offended” and “assuming anyone took offence”; they convince no one.

 Do research

If time allows, investigate the incident before issuing an apology. This will ensure a comprehensive apology that identifies the reason for the incident and outlines immediate follow-up actions. But if a review will take a long time, issue an apology that states that a review will be undertaken.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO expressed her regret on Twitter for the inability of Y-mail users to access their emails. She further tweeted an apology by senior vice president Jeffrey Bonforte detailing the problem, which stated: “We have dozens of people working around the clock to bring it to a resolution.”

Don’t shift the blame

In 2015, regulators discovered that Volkswagen had installed illegal software to cheat on emissions tests. The then CEO of Volkswagen U.S., Michael Horn, had the following to say:

“These events are deeply troubling. I did not think that something like this was possible at Volkswagen Group… This was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason … This was not a corporate decision. There was no board meeting that approved this.”

This statement conveys a CEO who is unaware of what is happening in his company and brings his leadership into question. Moreover, it shows that he is unwilling to take responsibility for what happened.

In short, when your company has messed up, you should apologise quickly and cleanly. Keep it direct, stating the nature of the problem and its solution. Take responsibility. And above all, don’t let it happen again.

Follow Natasha on Twitter

Published on Clarity Editorial


#FeesMustFall: In defense of my fellow TUT students

FeesMustFall. Pic by gabby-mathibe

Being a product of Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) has earned me a few unpleasant names, especially because I studied at the Soshanguve campus.

A hooligan, a thug, a ruffian were some of the names spat in my face when having to rep my campus name while protesting at the Union Buildings with a number of Wits students. Although, I do not think it is okay to destroy property in order to make a point.

But I felt hurt when I saw that even though my fellow TUT students marched in solidarity with the rest of the #FeesMustFall it still did not help them escape the name calling especially on Twitter by well-known celebrities such as DJ Moflava tweeting “Every student, of all races and backgrounds behaved, all except some lunatics from TUT Sosha. It needs to be clear! #FeesHaveFallen.”

It’s so easy for non-TUT students to start judging TUT without having all the facts and realising that they don’t know our struggles.

TUT students know when it’s time to lead, we know exactly why we were at the Union Buildings and that wasn’t to make friends with other universities – we wanted answers from a president who refused to even come outside and address us.

Students in the frontline destroyed parts of the fence with their bare hands, concrete falling apart because of them and made fire in-order to torch the plastic toilets, other young people – at the protest and on social media – did their best to distance themselves from us.


TUT students had been protesting two weeks prior to the #WitsMustFall but you wouldn’t know that because there was no convenient hashtags.

It was Soshanguve students wanting to know when issues around fee increases, NSFAS, inadequate security on campus, busses, stale cafeteria food and underdeveloped infrastructure would be sorted.

There were no convenient hashtags or journalists from all over the country live-tweeting from our campus, about our campus and our struggles. There were no celebrities coming in to support our grievances.

The only time the ‘biggest’ media houses are interested in TUT Soshanguve is when we are being violent.

I was annoyed that the only time our cries were heard was when universities like Wits, UCT and Stellenbosch started protesting over fees.

This got me asking what is so special about them? Are we not important enough in the ‘governments’ eyes to be heard on our own without support from Wits, Stellebosch and UCT?


After the protests, everyone went back to their luxurious universities and we went back to our campus.

Our campus in Soshanguve is the kind of place where the male residence has no security guard at the entrance; where it’s not safe anymore to walk from the library to your res at night without someone trying to attack; where the cafeteria food is stale; where there are never enough books for all of us; where you have to squeeze yourself into the campus bus because if it leaves you behind, you will have to wait for an hour for the next one; where we pace up and down trying to find a proper Lab with sufficient computers that are in good enough condition to be used for school work.

No one knows our struggles but it’s so easy for ‘randoms’ to always have something to say about us.


I am proud to be a TUT student because even with the name calling, even with the everyday struggles we face, our lecturers try to do the best they could with the little they have to make sure we get good results.

Follow Natasha on Twitter

Photo by Goabaona Mathibe

Published on LiveMagSA

#FeesMustFall: Wits management agrees to halt fee hikes after a week of protests



The hashtags changed from #WitsFeesMustFall to #WitsFeesWillFall and after a week of sustained protesting, the Wits university management heard the students cries and fee hikes were halted.

The Wits council announced in a statement today that they had not only agreed to halt the proposed 10.5% fee increase but that students on NFSAS and those who are stretched financially will also get a discount. The vice chancellor Adam Habib also agreed that he will forfeit any performance bonus that is due to him and the money will instead be used to help give deserving students access to the university.

The streets around the Wits campus in Braamfontein were alive with students chanting and protesting, with some vowing to continue with their protest action. Some students took the decision by Habib not to show up on campus today as a sign of disrespect.

“It’s painful knowing that my parents sacrificed a lot for me to come study here and then the chancellor [Habib] disrespects us by not showing up,” said Nokwanda Motsitsi, 20, a second year year BA student.

Another student, Aphelele Mkhize, 20, a second year accounting student said, ‘When we do get these free increments lowered, we are all going to reap what we sowed.” She said that although it was unfair that they would miss so much in terms of academics, there was no way that they could go home and sleep, all students needed to be unified in this fight.

By the end of the day Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande had announced that fees would be capped at 6% when it came to increments for 2016.

Words by Natasha Ndlebe and Thembekile Sibiya

Photography by Kyle Kheswa

Published on LiveMagSA