On April 4, Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Boeing, faced a near-impossible task: He had to apologize for two 737 Max jet crashes, one in October 2018 and one in March 2019, that together killed 346 passengers and crew. The court of public opinion had already found Boeing guilty; now Muilenburg had to win back the public’s trust. Somehow, he had to own Boeing’s role in the two catastrophes while also convincing the public that the company would do better in the future.
It’s an unenviable challenge, and one that other leaders have attempted with mixed success. Too often, these statements come across as empty rhetoric — saying what’s expected without really meaning it, making excuses, or blaming others for what went wrong. Not only do hollow, perfunctory apologies fail to repair relationships with stakeholders, they can make matters worse. Indeed, Muilenburg’s initial response met with resistance and did little to stanch the loss of credibility. (He apologized again recently.)
To win back lost trust, it’s important to grasp a fundamental truth about apologies: When something bad happens, you must first decide if an apology is even warranted — sometimes apologizing is not the best strategy. If an apology is warranted, companies must then answer three key questions to properly craft a response: Do we tell the truth? On whose behalf are we acting? How do our actions benefit those who trust us? To help executives be better prepared to speak to stakeholders in difficult and make-or-break moments, we explain this process below.