How to Apologize If Your Brand Messes Up

In parts one and two of this series on crisis communications, we talked about why every business needs to have a crisis communications plan in place and what should go into the plan. In part three, let’s take a look at how to apologize, if you need to.

To set the stage, let’s look at how 2017 has gone for brands. I don’t know if it’s that more brands are making mistakes–or that more people now notice with social media there and always ready to spread the news—but it seems like there’s ALWAYS a company in the news for saying something it shouldn’t have said.

Missteps will happen. Some do a good job of apologizing (Southwest) while others not so much (United). Southwest’s apology was immediate and sincere, while it took United three attempts to finally begin to get it right.

So, what makes a good apology? Here are some elements it should include:

  • It should be timely: The apology should quickly follow the misstep. In these days of social media, news—good or bad—can spread like wildfire. Brands no longer have days, or even hours, to come up with an apology. They have to act fast. And, it’s important to get it right on the first try. If it takes you several tries (like United), you risk losing even more favor with the public.
  • It should be sincere: It goes without saying that the apology should be heartfelt and genuine. Yet, when people find themselves in a situation in which they need to apologize, they’ll often deny any wrongdoing. Why?

“Denial is the simple thing to do, and people grasp wildly at the first straw to occur to them,” said William Benoit, Ohio University Communications professor and author of Accounts, Excuses, Apologies: Image Repaid Theory and Research.

It wasn’t until Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, appeared on Good Morning America using words like “shame” and “embarrassment” that he began to come across as more remorseful. And, United announced it would refund the fares of all the passengers on the affected flight, a gesture illustrating empathy.

  • You should take responsibility for your actions: If you’ve done something wrong, say so. Admit your error. Don’t make excuses or try to shift the blame. There’s an appreciation for simply saying, “We messed up—and we’re sorry.” Experts agree this is one of the best ways to begin rebuilding trust.
  • Just say it, plain and simple: No need to use fancy words. Simple terms are best. It’s better to use words that reflect language your audience relates to. Don’t use industry jargon.
  • Include an explanation of what happened: If it’s warranted, explaining what happened can also help folks understand—and perhaps be more forgiving.

For example, when it was revealed that PricewaterhouseCoopers was behind the debacle at the Academy Awards this year, the next day, not only did they apologize, but they offered an explanation of what happened. This helped them mend fences with the Academy.

If you need more examples, check out SorryWatch, where founders Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall review public apologies each week and give advice on structure and language. For instance, they recently took a stab at dissecting Equifax’s attempt at apologizing.

And what’s the one most important piece of advice Ingall gives? If you make a mistake, don’t make excuses. “Apologizing well means acknowledging that, at that moment at least, you were not good,” says Ingall.

After all, everyone makes mistakes. It’s how you apologize that matters.