Public relations professionals typically seek to issue a quick, public apology when their company or its employees are accused of mistakes or misconduct.

The company’s legal staff often restrain those PR-motivated statements of apology. PR crisis managers are sometimes frustrated by what they view as the legal department’s insistence on stonewalling. After all, studies show that corporations that admit wrongdoing recover reputations faster. That’s why PR pros believe lawyers are poor crisis managers.

Capable PR crisis managers, however, take into account the lawyers’ viewpoint and the possible legal ramifications of public apologies and other public statements. Apologizing can be akin to admitting fault, and admitting fault is a suicidal legal strategy, explains Cayce Myers, legal research editor for the Institute for Public Relations.

In fact, a court could accept press releases, social media postings, statements at press conferences, and any communications with the media as evidence against the company.

Currently, 27 states and the District of Columbia have “I’m Sorry” laws that exclude mortification statements, or statements of remorse or empathy, from being accepted as evidence in court. The rules are complex and the definitions of the statements of apology and sympathy vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, says Myers, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s department of communication. Even if a state has an “I’m sorry law,” it may still allow admission of fault couched in terms of mortification to be accepted as evidence.

Key Questions for Public Relations

In light of those laws, PR pros should ask these questions when considering issuing apologies, he says.

Is this crisis likely to result in a federal or state lawsuit? Federal law does not exempt mortification statements. It is best for PR to have a crisis in a jurisdiction with an “I’m sorry” law, although the legal department may favor federal court.

Who is my audience? State laws require statements be directed toward victims and their families. In smaller crises that affect a small number of victims, PR pros may need to employ other communications means other than the traditional press releases or press conferences.

Am I expressly admitting fault? Because many of the current “I’m sorry” laws still allow admissions of fault to be admitted into evidence, it’s crucial for PR pros to construct crisis communications carefully.

What is my organization doing in addition to our PR strategy? Other corporate actions may show guilt and undo PR activities. Knowing about the organization’s other activities can help PR produce better communications that avoid legal pitfalls.

PR and Legal Must Work Together

Both legal and PR experts advise that an organization’s PR and legal counsel must work closely together, even if they hold a dim view of each other’s crisis management skills. It can be especially important for PR to listen carefully to the advice of legal counsel.

“They, better than PR people, understand the legal traps and some are also proficient in communications,” advises Arthur Solomon, a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. “PR people should welcome the role of a lawyer in crisis situations.”

Lawyers should review and clear media statements and other PR actions during a crisis. Although timely communication is crucial, rushing to release statements before analyzing all the facts can create more problems and distrust.

Neither legal nor PR should have the authority to dictate its position.  In any dispute between legal and PR about communications policies or drafts of public statements, it is the C-suite that must make the ultimate decision after carefully weighing both the PR and the legal positions.

Bottom Line: Understanding laws covering apology statements is essential in order for PR pros to properly respond to crises and to work effectively with the legal counsel. While statements of remorse and sympathy are an important part of PR crisis management, they can expose the corporation to legal liability if PR does not craft them carefully and take into account “I’m sorry laws” in the specific jurisdiction.