Sorry seems to be the hardest word…



The controversy surrounding The Chaser this week has been the focus of much discussion on the radio airwaves, TV screens, online and even at the c word.

We watched as the twitterverse discussed the merits and demerits of the skit in question and also watched the various apologies and responses. Although we’ve seen the skit, we don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said already (fence sitter hehehe).

However it leads us to think about another c word: crisis. And how best to handle yourself and your brand in a crisis. We think The Chaser’s response is a perfect example of what NOT to do in a crisis particularly when apologising. If we comb through their apology (and quite frankly it takes a little combing to get there) we are first presented with a justification. Have a look for yourself… btw this apology was issued shortly before noon by the show’s producer Julian Morrow and Director of ABC TV Kim Dalton:

“The Chaser’s War on Everything is a satirical program aimed at provoking debate and providing social commentary on topical issues, current affairs and public life in general. The sketch in last night’s show called ‘Making A Realistic Wish Foundation” was a satirical sketch and black comedy.

“The ABC and The Chaser did not intend to hurt those who have been affected by the terminal illness of a child. We acknowledge the distress this segment has caused and we apologise to anyone we have upset. As a result, ABC TV will edit the segment out of tonight’s repeat screening on ABC2 and online.”


In order for an apology to be truly apologetic and not simply a token gesture it really must start with “we are sorry” or words to that affect. If you look closely at the Chaser’s apology they start off by talking about their show and building a case for the merits of what they have done and then only in the second paragraph do they launch into an apology. ABC and the Chaser took the “I’m sorry but…” approach which never really sounds like a sincere apology, does it?

Another problem was they they took far too long to issue this statement. With breakfast radio & morning radio in a frenzy, the team & ABC seemed to ignore attempts for interviews and responses. What they should have done, is issue an apology first thing in the morning to be pro-active, be part of the debate and and to prevent the snowball from escalating. Silence only fuels speculation and further frenzy.

Any public relations student or practitioner can tell you about the 2 polar examples used to demonstrate crisis management. See Wikipedia summaries below:

Tylennol: Example of successful crisis management

In the fall of 1982, a murderer added 65 milligrams of cyanide to some Tylenol capsules on store shelves, killing seven people, including three in one family. Johnson & Johnson recalled and destroyed 31 million capsules at a cost of $100 million. The affable CEO, James Burke, appeared in television ads and at news conferences informing consumers of the company’s actions. Tamper-resistant packaging was rapidly introduced, and Tylenol sales swiftly bounced back to near pre-crisis levels. Johnson & Johnson was again struck by a similar crisis in 1986 when a New York woman died on Feb. 8 after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Johnson & Johnson was ready. Responding swiftly and smoothly to the new crisis, it immediately and indefinitely canceled all television commercials for Tylenol, established a toll-free telephone hot-line to answer consumer questions and offered refunds or exchanges to customers who had purchased Tylenol capsules. At week’s end, when another bottle of tainted Tylenol was discovered in a store, it took only a matter of minutes for the manufacturer to issue a nationwide warning that people should not use the medication in its capsule form.

Exxon: Example of not-so-good crisis management

On March 24, 1989, a tanker belonging to the Exxon Corporation ran aground in the Prince William Sound in Alaska. The Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off Valdez, killing thousands of fish, fowl, and sea otters. Hundreds of miles of coastline were polluted and salmon spawning runs disrupted; numerous fishermen, especially Native Americans, lost their livelihoods. Exxon, by contrast, did not react quickly in terms of dealing with the media and the public; the CEO, Lawrence Rawl, did not become an active part of the public relations effort and actually shunned public involvement; the company had neither a communication plan nor a communication team in place to handle the event—in fact, the company did not appoint a public relations manager to its management team until 1993, 4 years after the incident; Exxon established its media center in Valdez, a location too small and too remote to handle the onslaught of media attention; and the company acted defensively in its response to its publics, even laying blame, at times, on other groups such as the Coast Guard. These responses also happened within days of the incident

Please note we’re not suggesting that the Exxon oil spill is by any means in the same league as the Chaser incident, but it merely demonstrates a lack of strategy being in place for dealing with issues that arise.

So what can you do to better handle bad publicity and crisis?

Be prepared

Respond quickly

Break a bad story first so you can maintain some control over it

Keep media & key stakeholders informed

If you’re in the wrong, own up to it & apologise

Make amends & explain how you are planning to improve

Speak with one voice, make sure other employees are not sending mixed messages

After the story settles, try to follow up after a period of time, with a positive PR story

Just briefly before we speed off to enjoy the long weekend here in Melbourne … another C word in the news has been China and its dealing with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Twenty years on it still saddens me to no end. Our thoughts are with Tiananmen mothers who struggle to have their children’s death recognised & also those still living in exile or in prison for the efforts to topple corruption. Its a sad day indeed when many Chinese don’t even know about this terrible moment in their country’s history.

I won’t leave you on a somber note though. Instead a lesson on how to say your sorry… take it away Elton.

Happy long weekend,
the c word

Updated 10.30pm 05/06/09

Apparently “sorry” isn’t so hard to say when your TV show gets pulled off the air for 2 weeks. The Chaser were quick to respond this time around with another apology

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