The Art of an Authentic Apology

In this day and age (and especially in the D.C. metro area), we hear more non-apologies than apologies. Individuals and organizations alike are more worried about their brand taking a hit because they said or did something offensive then accepting responsibility for their impact. Enter, the classic non-apology. You might recognize some of these fauxpology phrases:

  • I’m sorry you feel that way.
  • We’re sorry if…
  • It wasn’t my intention.
  • We feel badly.
  • Mistakes were made.
  • I deeply regret.
  • We’re sorry, but…

Intent is different from impact. Just because you didn’t intend to hurt your coworker with an ‘off-color’ joke, or your organization didn’t intend to infect the public with salmonella, stuff happens and the best first response is always to take responsibility. The second best response is to shoulder the responsibility of your actions or words and do something to ensure that the mistake never happens again.

In the public relations realm, these responses get messy. So often, our gut instinct is to shy away from a statement that can tarnish a brand (it takes so long to build and so short to break down). Maybe your PR person or agency recommends a polished response that offers distance – because that feels safer than the alternative.

Here’s the kicker though: when an organization screws up, the affected people don’t want a polished statement or to feel even more distance. They want empathy — and for that, organizations have to lean into the discomfort, listen, take responsibility and do better.

So what does an authentic apology look like for brands?

Maybe execs feel defensive when they get the news (it’s a natural first response). They might worry about admitting greater liability if they offer a genuine apology (check with counsel on the specific language, obviously). The problem is, when brands offer genuine apologies and accept responsibility for their wrongdoing, they are often out of the news more quickly than those that push back or try to minimize the impact of their actions. We exist in a 24-hour news cycle. We, the public, appreciate organizations that can own it, do better, and move on.

Here are a few simple tactics to consider during a crisis when drafting your apology:

  • Listen. The affected party wants to feel heard. When brands screw up, we as consumers too often receive empty apologies that reflect the company’s inability or unwillingness to listen and understand what really caused the outrage.
  • Do a Google search. Researching the issue is intimately connected to listening. Let’s go back to the salmonella example. Sure, people are upset about getting sick, but they’re also probably scared for their loved ones, annoyed at missing work, worried about how this will impact missed school, impeding medical bills, etc. Listen and unpack this information, then reinforce that learning through your public response.
  • Make a commitment to do and be better (and then get to it). Words are important, but really show your customers that you care by making a change in how things are done. Actions always speak louder than words.

Need more context? Consider these brands who did it well:

  • Netflix, circa 2011: when Netflix announced the separation of DVD services and a change in pricing, they weren’t transparent about the impact of the change. Customers, who appreciated the convenience of multiple services and one bill, were upset about the change in price as well as the two different bills. The Netflix CEO apologized for the misstep and lack of communication on the companies blog and followed up a few weeks later. They listened and then made a change.
  • Airbnb, circa 2015: when the online room-sharing platform got some heat for making it harder for guests with African-American-sounding names to rent rooms. Harvard researchers published a working paper on racial discrimination in a ‘sharing economy,’ social media exploded with customer testimonials and Airbnb CEO (and the company writ large) shifted in response. They addressed problematic hosts, issued a statement acknowledging the impact it had on users, hired the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office to help them change and are discussing policy changes that would address the issue. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step. (They also released this beautiful commercial.)
  • Apple Music, circa 2015: when they decided not to pay artists during the 3 month trial period they offered users. Taylor Swift wrote an open letter to Apple and the company received significant backlash in support of the artists – their response? Their VP of Software and Services tweeted his apology – and promised to make a policy change. Although the message was delivered through the notoriously-casual-Twitter, he took ownership for the mistake, promised a shift and made it happen.

The bottom line is this: everyone makes mistakes. We’re human and continually growing. Your customers value authenticity. They likely care far more about what you’re going to do to make things right than the fact that you didn’t intend to mess up in the first place. The public is always watching, and will even more after a misstep. This means they will notice if you really make a course correction or if you just pay lip service.

Let’s talk.