How to Apologize Effectively

07.17.2013 | Anne Lindberg

To err is to be human.  But how one handles the mistake can make or break a relationship. Businesses, particularly in this era of social media, are in a more difficult predicament when mistakes are made. Rumors spread quickly in the social stratosphere and can lead to negative consequences for a brand’s image. However, when business leaders and others in the public eye apologize appropriately, they are able to minimize damage – and might even benefit from the situation if done right.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review explains how to effectively apologize, breaking it down into a variety of situations based on the audience that may have been offended, such as strangers or acquaintances, partners or friends, and teams at the workplace or even a society. The author reminds us to “remember to ask yourself the following: Who am I talking to, and what is he or she looking for in my apology?”

Most corporate communications departments will immediately pull together a carefully crafted statement. The effort to respond quickly is important but sometimes they can be overly scrubbed, which can turn a heartfelt apology into what appears to be a legal statement protecting the company rather than showing concern, understanding and caring for customers. That’s not to say apologies shouldn’t be carefully and thoughtfully written. This is critical. But if it isn’t direct, the apology may not appear authentic or genuine, which could damage a brand.

Here are four tips to effectively apologize to customers and keep your company image in tact.

  1. Respond immediately As the saying goes, it’s easier to eat crow while it’s still warm. A swift apology can stop the rumor mill from spreading. On the contrary, when many hours or days go by without a word, the worst assumptions may be made.
  2. Look deeper This could be a sign of a bigger issue that must be addressed. Customers don’t always complain so its up to a business to uncover the fundamental problem. As reported in another HBR article, when TED received complaints about one of its TEDx conferences, executives apologized but it didn’t stop there. They took the time to talk to constituents and learn about underlying issues to ultimately improve the conferences consequently saving its brand image.
  3. Acknowledge the damage done and take responsibility Be direct and specific about what happened and who may have been affected. For example, after major operational issues resulting in complaints, JetBlue publicly apologized in a very authentic way, expressing how customers must have felt and taking full responsibility by stating its explicit failures.
  4. Identify a solution – Using the same example, JetBlue went on to create its “Customer Bill of Rights,” which details how customers will be compensated if future issues arise. If a tangible solution like this isn’t possible (for example if words were offensive, not the actions), take a stand on the issue to clarify your company’s position.

Apologies are not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, they can be a sign of courage and can help customers trust a brand. Circling back to the first sentence in this post, “to err is to be human,” the best way to apologize is through the same vein, by showing you are human. In this era of connecting through words on a screen, people continue to value – maybe more than ever – the human connection.




Filed under: COMMUNIQUÉ PR, Crisis Communications, PR trends, Reputation Management

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