I’m not an expert on corporate apologies. And for that, I apologise.
That was pretty easy.
But some companies seem to struggle when they have to admit their failings. They’re robotic and cold. They look for scapegoats and diversions. And sometimes, they don’t really seem to be apologising at all.
So here are three failsafe ways to send an apology out into the world – one that’s honest, sincere, and hopefully a little bit credible.
Pretend you’re a human
Let’s start with a look at some high-profile apologies:
Which of these three headlines feels more sincere, more heartfelt – more appropriate to the severity of a harmful situation?
‘We apologise’ is functional. It informs us of the gesture being transmitted.
‘We are sorry’ sounds a little closer to remorse, and it implies some feelings of guilt.
But ‘We are so sorry’ – this sounds like something real. It sounds genuine and earnest: like someone consoling their bereaved friend.
It’s not just the addition of a modifier (‘so’). It’s also that this is the word-for-word phrase that real human beings use to apologise from the bottom of their hearts.
When you’ve really hurt someone, you don’t say ‘I apologise’.
You might say ‘I’m sorry’.
But if you really care about the person you’ve wronged – and you truly feel awful about what you’ve done – you’ll probably say ‘I am so sorry’.
Of course, you could argue that each of these three headlines is appropriate for each scandal:
Tesco had the wrong meat in their products. It wasn’t dangerous, it was just icky. So a weaker apology doesn’t seem too out of place.
The News of the World was accused of hacking people’s phones to get juicy insider stories.
That’s invasive, but they didn’t get anyone killed. It deserves a strong apology, but perhaps gushing would have felt out of place.
But with Oxfam, things were different. There was an abuse of power, sexual misconduct, and exploitation – and all of it during a time of disaster and crisis in the communities where these things happened.
With so much humanity at stake, it makes sense that Oxfam’s apology should be the most personal. And it makes sense that the rest of their apology advert continues to use the same human and emotive language.
They don’t say that the events are ‘unacceptable’. They say the events are hard to bear.
They don’t say that Oxfam is ‘investigating’. They say that Oxfam is listening.
They talk about the amazing and brave staff who are working in desperate situations without thought for their own safety. They’re not talking about ‘diligent’ staff who are ‘focused on the problem’ – they’re talking about real human emotions and values.
And if they’d left it at a simple ‘We apologise’?
It wouldn’t have felt real or appropriate.
Accept the finger
It’s already pointing right at you. Everyone can see it – and if you try to misdirect it, people will notice.
You’re writing an apology to make things right. And that means admitting your failings and taking responsibility.
But this is where things can get tricky. There’s a fine line between owning up to a problem and drawing new attention to it. And there’s a fine line between minimising bad press and sweeping away a scandal.
Tesco explicitly mentioned horse meat in their apology advert. That’s a good sign that they’re fully committed to taking the fall and being transparent with their customers. But for anyone reading it who hadn’t heard of the problem, it’s a seriously damaging bit of PR.
On the other end of the scale, there’s Wells Fargo:
I think it’s got something to do with pushing new accounts on people who don’t need them. But that little nugget of information is buried so deep in the text – and is stated so ambiguously – that we can’t be sure what really went wrong.
(And so we can’t really be sure how much wrong they’ve caused.)
On the one hand, that’s great for Wells Fargo. Anyone who sees this ad will remain blissfully unaware of any wrongdoing. They’ll have a vague understanding that something went wrong – but without any of the usual juicy gossip, they won’t make it to the end of the advert before they lose interest.
But for anyone who knows what happened (or for those who were affected by it), this advert could leave them deeply unsatisfied.
There’s no apology. No explanation for their actions. There’s an admission of failure and a promise that things will be better. But it all seems a bit tight-lipped – and there doesn’t seem to be any real remorse or regret.
Make it about us
You’re up there on the podium, miked up and sweating. We’re down here on the picket-line, screaming for your blood.
There’s an invisible line that separates the plaintiff from the perpetrator. And if you don’t make an effort to cross it, your apology will fall flat.
Let’s go back to the News of the World:
Or maybe we can look at AirBnB:
Notice anything missing?
Now take a look at this:
You should feel a stark difference – even if you can’t quite put your finger on it.
So what’s missing?
You don’t feature in any of those first examples. But you’re in almost every paragraph of the Facebook apology.
It might seem like a trivial point to make. But really, that difference can mean everything.
Without addressing the people you’ve affected, your apology becomes hollow. It’s an abstract description of a mistake, devoid of any connection to the real world and the consequences you’ve created.
So at the very least, try and follow this simple formula:
- We messed up.
- You didn’t deserve it.
- We’re going to try and fix it.
- You’ll get compensation.
That’s a healthy balance of negative-us and positive-you: two essential ingredients in any strong apology.
And if you’re willing to address us directly and honestly, we might finally let you down from that sweaty podium – so someone else can take your place.