Arguably the toughest part of managing the reputation of a company in a crisis is negotiating with legal counsel about what can and can't be said especially if the appropriate communication response is accepting responsibility or apologizing for misbehavior.
Lawyers/attorneys invariably counsel against saying anything in the belief that an apology increases the company's legal liability. CEOs are quick to believe this argument. They will sometimes shut down communication . . . at the expense of protecting the company's reputation and delaying reputation recovery.
Having provided crisis communications counsel for the past twenty years, I have had a hard time seeing how an apology constitutes an admission of guilt. But lawyers always win this argument in the C-suite frankly without ever having to provide evidence to support their point of view.
It seems I may not be so stupid after all. According to an abstract from an article by Ameeta Patel and Lamar Reinsch in Business Communication Quarterly from 2003 which I have just come across it would appear there is support for the idea that "a company can apologize to someone who has been injured by a product or an employee without creating a legal liability for the company."
While I try to get access to the complete article here is a summary of their argument:
"Discussions of corporate apologies frequently . . . imply that apologies create legal liabilities for the apologist and, therefore, that corporate attorneys routinely recommend against apologies. A review of formal ("block letter") and common law indicates that apologies generally do not constitute evidence of guilt and that, in fact, they sometimes have positive consequences for the apologist. Persons who practice (or teach) crisis communication should avoid the mistake of relying on an over-simplified and inaccurate understanding of the legal issues surrounding corporate apologies."
I can't wait to read the full paper, and take a close look at its references.