The effects of apologies and causal attribution on public responses
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Apologies have been used in crisis communications to address organizational transgressions. Yet, there is no consensus about the components of an apology (e.g., Hearit, 2006; Smith, 2008). Also, the causes of an organization’s transgression could affect an individuals’ attribution of responsibility toward the organization, which in turn makes a difference to public responses regarding the crisis situation. This study uses data breach crises as examples. Data breaches have become so commonplace that no organization is immune to the dangers of identity theft in the digital world. Organizations whose consumers’ personally identifiable information has been compromised could trigger consumers’ anger, damage organizational reputation, and injure their trust in the organizations. This study examines the effects of causal attribution and components of apologies, specifically responsibility acceptance and expression of sympathy on public anger relief, organizational reputation, and trust in an organization’s competence, integrity, and benevolence. An experimental study used a 2 (causal attribution: internal vs. external) x 3 (explicitness of responsibility acceptance: none, implicit, explicit) x 2 (expression of sympathy: high vs. low) between-subjects design in which participants received sample stimuli in order to measure individuals’ judgment on organizational apologies. Findings indicated that there were significant effects of causal attributions on anger relief and trust in an organization’s competence and benevolence. Apologies with an explicit statement of responsibility acceptance were found to have significant effects on generating positive perceptions on organizational reputation and regaining trust in the organization’s competence, benevolence, and integrity. No significant effects of sympathetic expression were found on dependent variables. There was a marginal interaction effect of causal attribution, responsibility acceptance, and sympathetic expression on public anger relief. No interaction effects between and among the three independent variables were found on other dependent variables. Findings were limited to severe crises because the fictional data breach scenario used in this study revealed a larger number of breached accounts with important personally identifiable information. Discussions about theoretical and practical implications emphasized the role of apology strategy in crisis communications and apologetic components included in an apology statement that could help generate favorable public responses. Keywords: crisis communications, apologies, responsibility acceptance, sympathetic expression, causal attribution, anger relief, reputation, and trust.
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