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Crisis Management May Mean Having to Say You’re Sorry

Q: My attorney says apologizing will be bad for future litigation – that apologizing means we are liable.  What do you think?

A: We often find ourselves wrestling with our client’s attorneys over the phrase “I’m sorry.” Somehow, through the years, attorneys have come to define the phrase “I’m sorry” as meaning “I’m liable. I caused your injury.”  But here’s the stark reality: “I’m sorry” works.  Especially in crisis situations.

In all situations, expressing empathy shows you have feelings, you care and are human.  And, if you did cause the injury, expressing empathy early and sincerely can lower your future potential payout… a lot. (For a deeper dive into how and why it works, see,

If you have a victim – anyone who has been injured on your property or at your place of work – whether it’s a physical, monetary or psychological injury, any initial response should include empathy, compassion and/or sorrow. Simply, “I’m sorry” does not mean “I’m liable.”  It means you feel badly that someone is going through a troubling experience. And besides being the human and right way to react, that expression of empathy has the potential to help protect a company or organization from unnecessary litigation and a high payout.

An employee, customer or client gets injured, or worse, dies, at your place of business – whether your fault or not. Instead of an expression of sympathy for the victim or victim’s family, your attorney pushes out a factual press release that merely confirms or denies what happened and refuses further comment because of “an ongoing investigation or possible litigation.”  The victim hears that sterilized statement, or worse, no statement at all, and THAT is precisely the moment the victim says, “Call my attorney, I want to find out exactly what happened.”  The company is immediately thrust into the “villain” role, and becomes the unfeeling, uncaring and untrustworthy foe. Or, worse, the individual or organization tries to spin the apology. 

Instead try leading with empathy: “We are sorry and feel terrible that an employee was injured. We know this is a rough time for her and her family and we hope that she recovers quickly.” The conversation has a much better chance of changing from one of distrust and anger, to one of trust and compassion.

You also can follow the recent example of a leader suddenly dealing with a tragedy, leading with empathy.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, faced with the death of a passenger on Flight 1380 last year, quickly issued this initial statement: “It is with great sadness that I confirm there was a passenger fatality on Flight 1380. This a sad day, and on behalf of the entire Southwest family, I want to extend my deepest sympathies for the family, and the loved ones of our deceased customer. They are our immediate and primary concern, and we will do all that we can to support them during this difficult time and the difficult days ahead.”

By early June, less than two months later, in a poll of 2,000 American adults conducted by YouGuv, nearly half said they had a positive view of Southwest – the best showing of any U.S. airline.

The company had survived the crisis with its reputation intact and, in the eyes of at least some, even enhanced. How? It started with empathy.

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