The Art of The Apology

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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

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      "Problems cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them," is attributed to Einstein over 75 years ago. This still holds true, particularly in challenging communications. Many people address conflict at the level it was created by rehashing and building more evidence for their ‘side’ of an argument. Repeating a position tends to intensify the separation of people.

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