The Art of The Apology

Posted: Updated:
Scott Flood Scott Flood

You screwed up. You handled something the wrong way, or you failed to handle it when you should have. Now what are you going to do?

If you’re a big company, you’re probably going to screw up some more. Oh, you’ll attempt some kind of public apology, but it will be so halfhearted or passive-aggressive that you’ll get called on it, and you’ll find yourself taking a second whack at the apology tree.

That's the conclusion I’ve drawn as I’ve watched any number of large companies try to deal with situations where they either did something wrong or were perceived as doing wrong. Instead of simply owning up to the matter and expressing regret, they've taken graceless approaches that only made a bad situation worse. And in an era of viral social media, you just can't afford to do that.

The poster child for mishandled apologies has to be the major airline that had a passenger dragged off a flight last year to make room for an employee who needed his seat. Other passengers immediately posted videos of the badly handled encounter, including horrifying images of the man being dragged down the plane's aisle.

So what did the airline do? Well, at first, the airline's PR team apologized for overbooking the flight (which subsequently proved not to have been the case), making no mention of the relocated passenger. Then the airline's CEO issued a statement that called the incident "upsetting" and apologized for having to "re-accommodate these customers." That evening, he issued a statement to the airline’s employees that claimed the passenger in question had been "disruptive and belligerent." It was immediately leaked to the media.

The next day, the CEO issued yet another statement that finally apologized to the passenger and others on the flight, taking "full responsibility" and noting, "I promise you we will do better." The following day, the airline offered to refund the fares of everyone on the flight. A day after that, the airline claimed that the CEO had reached out to the passenger, a gesture the passenger’s family and attorney said never actually happened.

Had the airline apologized properly in the first place, it probably would have been a national story for one day. Instead, the bungled series of apologies and statements kept the airline’s actions in the news for a full week and further eroded its reputation.

Face it, nobody likes to apologize. Nobody likes to admit to being wrong. But being able to do so genuinely and effectively is a critical component of integrity, whether it’s an individual or a company.

Unfortunately, so many corporate apologies are anything but genuine. They take the form of weasel-worded statements generated by attorneys, PR types, or committees that don’t so much apologize as create the illusion that an apology has been made. Or they’re the apologies that really aren’t, in which the faux regret is accompanied by an insinuation of blame on other parties. Is there an artful way to apologize? Absolutely. Start by owning up, because nothing deflects criticism quite like candor. Admit what happened and explain how you’ll remedy it or keep it from happening in the future. Speak with confidence and resist the urge to criticize others. If you’re the CEO and the problem was caused by line employees, don’t shift the blame. Be a real leader and accept full responsibility for what happened.

Apologize quickly and simply. Don’t spend days trying to craft the perfect apology, because that will only give your critics more fodder. When you speak first, you control the message. And when you keep the language of your apology simple and straightforward, it will be more likely to be perceived as honest, and won’t give anyone the opportunity to pick away at it or find contradictions in what was said.

Never exaggerate what happened. Your misstep is not the worst disaster of the century. When you present it, you don’t need to go into great detail about every internal element. Keep the message simple and focus on the big picture.

Finally, make your apology and be done with it. People have short memories, and their focus will move on to the next shiny object -- unless you keep bringing it to their attention. If the media or a critic ask you about it after the fact, it’s okay to say that you’ve made your apology and you’ve taken steps to keep it from happening again. You really don’t need to say any more about it.

Scott Flood is the owner of Scott Flood Writing.

  • Perspectives

    • Owe Taxes? What Went Wrong in 2018 and How to Survive It

      The 2018 tax filing deadline came and went. Whew! But for some Americans, the tax headache has just begun. This year was the first filing under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and while some taxpayers saw larger refunds others received a rude awakening. If you’re reeling from a large tax burden, this article is for you. The Root of the Problem Remember how excited you were when you received your first paycheck—followed by dismay when you saw how much was taken out for taxes.

    More

Subscribe

Name:
Company Name:
Email:
Confirm Email:
HTML
INside Edge
Morning Briefing
BigWigs & New Gigs
Life Sciences Indiana
Indiana Connections
INPower
Subscribe
Unsubscribe

Events



  • Most Popular Stories

    • Photo of Gary City Hall courtesy of the City of Gary

      McDermott Details Gary Retail Desert

      The city of Gary is facing challenges as it tries to rejuvenate retail business in the city. In an interview with our partners at The Times of Northwest Indiana, Aaron McDermott, president of Latitude Commercial Real Estate Services in Schererville, says the challenge is due to the perception, proximity and demographics associated with Gary. 

    • The Landing project involves redeveloping seven buildings and two parking lots into a mixed-use development.

      New Restaurant Concept Coming to The Landing

      The developers of a $34 million redevelopment project in downtown Fort Wayne have announced a new partnership. Cincinnati-based The Model Group says it is working with Cunningham Restaurant Group to bring a "new and unique" restaurant experience to The Landing.

    • Ball State Among '30 Best Online MBA Degree Programs'

      Ball State University’s Miller College of Business has been recognized as one of The 30 Best Online MBA Degree Programs by MBA Central. The website details 30 programs across the nation and praises Ball State’s program for its variety and affordability.

    • Ryan Wagoner

      Profit With a Purpose: The Rise of Social Impact Investing

      Social impact investing is a fast-growing sector driven by investors who want to use private capital to further the public good. This industry provides a unique opportunity for results-oriented social entrepreneurs to invest in businesses, funds and nonprofits with the intention of generating positive, measurable social change alongside financial return. By engaging in impact investing, investors can align their investment portfolios with their philanthropic priorities.

    • Lilly and Avidity Biosciences Announce Partnership

      Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. (NYSE: LLY) and Avidity Biosciences Inc. have announced a new partnership. The global licensing and research collaboration will work toward the discovery, development and commercialization of new medicines in immunology and other areas.