Crisis Management: Six Keys to a Great Apology

By: Guest | October 25, 2011 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Anne Weiskopf.

Apologizing is hard to do. As Elton John so memorably summed up; “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

But sorry can be the smartest word for your brand if it’s sincere, delivered in a timely fashion, and if concrete steps are outlined to right the wrong.

What makes one apology more successful than another is the subject of a growing body of research. A key finding is that it’s much easier to forgive a perceived mistake then an intentional act.

Let’s look at a few examples.

On July 12th Netflix sent an email to their subscribers telling them, that in September, they would be splitting DVD and streaming into two separate businesses and costs would double for their current service levels.

There was no further communication to customers until September 18th when CEO Reed Hastings issued an apology framed as an “explanation and some reflections.”

The apology not only fell flat, it actually enraged many in the Netflix community who viewed it as an attempt by the company to justify their upcoming changes. Reed’s apology was too late as Netflix had already lost one million customers and suffered a 50 percent drop in their valuation since July.

Last week, Netflix quietly retreated, announcing via email there would not be any changes to their current business model.

An effective apology, especially during a crisis, is one of the hardest but most important roles a CEO plays; it can determine a company’s ability to survive the incident. In the best case scenario, excellent crisis management can actually prove to be a positive for business. There is no better case study then the 1982 Johnson & Johnson Tylenol recall.

Last Thursday Mike Lazaridis, President of RIM took to YouTube to apologize for the company’s worldwide outage. The apology was four days into this major crisis and Lazaridis appeared wooden, and as if he were reading from a script. While Lazaridis did lay out the specific steps that RIM was putting in place to fix the problem, he missed an opportunity to tell customers they would not be charged for service during the period of Blackberry’s outage.

Given that lines were already forming at Apple for the iPhone 4S release the very next day, and with Apple’s iOS5 getting rave reviews, this should have been a no brainer. With RIM’s stock down 60 percent for the year, the stakes for Lazaridis were too high to have missed the mark.

Know when you owe someone an apology and give it.

Unless you have been hiding under a rock (or a meatball), you’re probably familiar with the kerfuffle surrounding Ragu Dads. Ragu recently launched a social media campaign targeting influential dads via Twitter. Among them was C.C Chapman, well-known blogger and author. Chapman was offended by the campaign and a lot of back and forth ensued. Whether C.C. was being a brand bully is up for debate; the fact that Ragu should have extended a direct and sincere apology isn’t.

Ragu eventually commented  on a blog post more favorable to their point of view, gave a non-specific apology, and then plugged their new campaign – “and if this week has confirmed anything, it’s that moms and dads (and grandmoms and grandads, too) want to have a word on dinner — and all are welcome to join in the conversation.”

Yes, apologizing is hard but a good apology is smart. It is also good for business. So how do you do it well?

Six keys to a great apology.

  1. Address the issue quickly.
    • “Silence is not an option in social media” – C.C. Chapman
  2. Even if it is not directly your fault, apologize for it anyway.
    • No, you no longer control your brand and yes, you’re still 100% responsible for its success”  – Duane Primozich
  3. Intent matters; people are more likely to forgive an honest mistake.
    • Apologize, don’t justify.
  4. Identify the steps that are being (or will be) taken to fix the problem.
  5. Pick the right medium for you to be most effective. A well written apology trumps a badly delivered video message.
  6. Continuously monitor all social and non-social channels so you can continue to address the issue further if needed.

What do you think? Would you add anything to this list?

Thanks to   _Noura for the image, Creative Commons.

Anne Weiskopf provides sales and business development services to agencies and companies who are in the social media and technology space. She blogs at Rip Off the Roof.

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  • AnneWeiskopf

    Aw shucks and cornhusks you guys. Thx for the RTs! @imtheq @jpippert @theblogstudio @evilPRGuy

  • cc_chapman

    @AnneWeiskopf Great post all around. Loved the hiding under a meatball line 🙂

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @cc_chapman Thanks so much. Yeah, I fell in love with the meatball line and it made thru several edits 🙂

  • AriellaBrown

    @anneweiskopf You’re very welcome.

  • halffiction

    Netflix is still not really sorry, in my opinion, they’re only concerned that their investors are fleeing in droves. Great, post, by the way! I would say for #5, the biggest mistake marketers make is apologizing in the wrong medium. When Motrin pissed off the mom bloggers on twitter, they should have apologized on Twitter, not on their own site.

    • @halffiction Sincerity. If you felt that Netflix was sincere it wouldn’t be so irritating.

      • halffiction

        True of any apology from a corporation to a three year old who is sorry only because they’re being punished. Part of the problem is also the fact that the public has become more media savvy and jaded, so even sincere apologies can fall on deaf ears.

        • AnneWeiskopf

          @halffiction @TheJackB – Perfect. Yes, I call it the “Non-apology, apology” – I’m sorry but…… And Hasting’s original “apology” absolutely infuriated their tech saavy customer base. The comments were BITING.

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @halffiction Thanks for your comments. Yes, agree – Netflix was concerned about their investors and they screwed that up to. Arrogance is ruling the kingdom. Hasting finally had to admit something: Re: apologizing, absolutely – at minimum you should apologize in the same medium that you offended. Btw – I’ve got a headache. Do you have any Motrin?

    • ginidietrich

      @halffiction I don’t think they’re sorry, either. I read a recap of their earnings call and thought, “And…?”

  • I think you hit it. When I try and explain this to peers, colleagues, dare-I-say clients, I ask them if their significant other/mother/brother would let that apology fly. Not kidding. If your Mom can sniff your BS, so can your customer.

    More and more, our companies can’t behave like we’re official delegations from the planet CareNotWantCash. Our customers are People, people with not just feelings, but now? Voices. Real apologies matter. Anything else makes things go from bad to worse.

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @Tinu Lol! Love it. Quote of the day “If you Mom can sniff BS, so can your customer” – brilliant! And yes – totally agree about your point that customers are PEOPLE! And often they just want to hear “I’m sorry”. This reminds me of the post that dannybrown shared today about his inability to ‘remove’ Klout and their forgetting that he is a person. Which reminds me – Humanize is spot on!

  • MSchechter

    Nicely summed up and great suggestions. I can’t imagine the legal issues that many of these companies have to deal with and I’ve always been thankful to just be able to truly say sorry when our company fall short (while of course figuring out the best way to fix things).

    I still think the trouble comes into play when the customer flys disproportionately off the handle. Things still feel very off balance now that the customer/brand relationship has changed so dramatically. Sure the brands need to step up their game, but influencers need to think about how they want to use their power.

    There is a big difference between being wronged and “wronged”. I still think we are yet to see how exactly that will play out, especially as the novelty of these kerfuffles wears off.

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @MSchechter Thank Michael, really appreciate your comments – it was your post about Brand Bullies that had me thinking more about this topic. And I do agree that influencers should think about how they use their power. Having said that, while it’s ‘not fair’ (to coin a term used frequently by my 13 year old) brands – especially in the social sphere – can no longer control their message which is hard for them to accept. And it seems like the emphasis is more on explaining their actions then apologizing for them; it’s understandable – both parties want to get their side of the story across. This is why I think the best policy is for the ‘offending’ party to apologize for the action – not necessarily the intent – and do it promptly and sincerely. Then, after the kerfuffle has subsided a bit, I believe they can address their point of view in a way that would not seem defensive and that folks might listen to. Wrongfully yours, Anne

      • MSchechter

        Oh, I couldn’t agree more on the fact that brands have lost their control, but there is a huge divide between giving that control over to your customers and giving it over to everyone on the internet. They asked for it when they spammed those dads, but at the same time, this clearly wasn’t a customer and there was clearly self interest at play.

        There is no doubt that they should have simply said I’m sorry and moved on, but emotionally speaking, I get why they did what they did.

        We also always forget just how new this is and how steep the learning curve can be, especially for large organizations. What I think will truly be interesting (and something we should all be looking at) is what they do from here rather than what they did last month. Did they learn, that will be the true question that comes from all of this.

        P.S. so much of me was tempted to just comment I’m sorry and then come back in an hour and post my actual reply, but I was lazy… 🙂

        • AnneWeiskopf

          @MSchechter That would have been TOTES funny. And, to your earlier point, I wonder what Ragu has learned. Maybe they learned not to target high profile folks on the interwebs. Which, was not the lesson that should have been learned. And while I agree that the learning curve in social media is huge – why should the apology process (not the outlet) be any different in the social world then the non-social? Timing is certainly more crucial, but beyond that……

        • MSchechter

          @AnneWeiskopf There is one tiny difference, in non-social, they are usually one to one and private. this was one to mob and public. It makes the apology far scarier and forces you to involve to many people (not saying this is a good thing, just what happens). Had they just said, I’m sorry, something tells me in this case, it wouldn’t have been enough. The frenzy was far too whipped 🙂

        • AnneWeiskopf

          @MSchechter You definitely have a point re: one to one and private apologies. The best one-to-one apology I ever got was many years ago after a very irritating experience at the GAP. I wrote a two page letter to then CEO, Micky Drexler – and he called me! (And sent me a ‘gift pack’ too.) More recently (and this does not fall in the category of an apology) but is ‘crisis’ communication – Verizon bought full page ads in major newspapers to explain the worker strike from their POV. They did not disparage the workers, but messaged in a very reasonable (who knows if it was factual) way about why under the new contract employees would have to pay a portion of their healthcare insurance. I thought it was a smart and measured move.

        • MSchechter

          @AnneWeiskopf Oh, there is no doubt that these are always opportunities. Where I’m struggling is in figuring out if they are obligations. Clearly that CEO wanted to make things right and that showed in the way things were handled. Now compare that to Ragu where clearly they don’t feel they have anything to apologize, but did it anyway.

          Part of the problem is these companies aren’t really sorry, they just feel pressured into saying so.

  • adebrunner

    @kmueller62 I haven’t clicked the link, but I’m going to guess the advice is “deny deny deny” right? CC: @ginidietrich

    • ginidietrich

      @adebrunner lack of control, fear, deny, excuses…

      • adebrunner

        @ginidietrich All very sound crisis communication strategies 🙂

        • ginidietrich

          @adebrunner Exactly! LOL!

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @adebrunner @kmueller62 Yes. Deny vigorously and blame someone else. An underlying is best if you can find one. cc: @ginidietrich

  • AnneWeiskopf

    Many thanks for the RTs! @brianfmartin @DKS_Systems @CristerDelacruz @Srodas1

    • DKS_Systems

      @AnneWeiskopf Anytime! 🙂

  • AnneWeiskopf

    @ginidietrich ironically @DougWeiskopf will tell u that I (and my dad/brother) have a “pathological” need to be right. Apology= surrender

    • ginidietrich

      @AnneWeiskopf LOL!! I have that disease as well

      • AnneWeiskopf

        @ginidietrich Phew!! (confession is good for the soul)

  • ginidietrich

    I was reading this last night and nodding my head over and over again (and not even to sleep!). I always say there are two words that go a looooong way in crisis: I’m sorry. Of course, that’s assuming we don’t have to be right. 🙂

    • MSchechter

      @ginidietrich I hate you.

      • ginidietrich

        @MSchechter I hate you, too.

        • MSchechter

          @ginidietrich I don’t hate you anymore, don’t you read?

        • ginidietrich

          @MSchechter I don’t hate you anymore, either.

  • catpoetry

    @AnneWeiskopf Ha! Nice!

  • catpoetry

    @kamichat @ginidietrich just an FYI, that one is actually by @AnneWeiskopf

    • kamichat

      @catpoetry Thanks for the correction, how could we leave out the awesome @AnneWeiskopf

      • AnneWeiskopf

        I’m just happy to be in the same tweet as your lovely ladies @kamichat @catpoetry @GiniDietrich

  • jenniferwindrum

    @allenmireles I have absolutely NO idea where October went. I haven’t even bought any pumpkins. Oh, the horror.

    • allenmireles

      @jenniferwindrum Oh we look like pumpkin central over here, go that part done. But, how did we arrive at this point in the month so fast? 🙁

      • jenniferwindrum

        @allenmireles I know. The only positive thing about it is we’ve had beautiful weather up until today. We’ll probably get snow next week. Ha.

  • KristaKopina

    @KristaKopina thanks for the RT!

  • Just had a look at the johnson and johnson case study you refer to and it is very interesting. Going that extra step to develop a safety measure that then made consumers switch to them. Very clever

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @RSA Course So glad you found it valuable. I remember the Tylenol “scare” quite well. And, while it was not J&J’s fault – they immediately took ownership of the situation, laid out an action plan, and kept the public updated. This is all the more impressive when you consider that there was no internet/social media when it occurred, so they could have acted much slower – but they did what was right for their customers and the pubic, and were rewarded for it, as they should have been.

  • Anne – great stuff. I would add – Don’t apologize while also reminding someone what you think is best. Example: “While I still think you’ve done something wrong I am sorry for the problem that is occurring.” When I see or hear something like that, the person I’m speaking to might as well have not said “I’m sorry” at all.

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @Maranda Thanks Maranda. Agree. Do you think I can Trademark the “Non-Apology; Apology?” 🙂 “I’m sorry, but……..” The Ragu apology was a classic case of this phenomenon. Even better was the PR agency’s apology to The Bloggess after calling her a F’ing Bitch. Did you follow that story?

      • @AnneWeiskopf@Maranda I followed THAT one.

        If you feel the need, at any point in your professional life, to call someone an F’ing Bitch in writing, you’d better be driving truck or manufacturing carpet – ANYTHING but managing PR. That’s what you say AFTER you hang up the phone and pour yourself a glass of Pinot!!!

        • @AmyMccTobin@AnneWeiskopf I did see that story – I could not believe it. Who possibly thinks that’s a good idea. Even if the intention was not to include said blogger on the stream, who talks about people like that in the first place? There were a million things shocking about that story.

        • AnneWeiskopf

          @Maranda@AmyMccTobin Agreed. I literally had my mouth open the entire time. I especially loved the “we were both wrong” comment, and lets just move on. HUH?? I think the reason in both the Ragu and Bloggess case that the apologies were so contrived is that they 1) did not expect to so utterly lose control of their message and 2) that ‘bloggers’ had the ability to make them keep the story live when they wished it would go away. Welcome to social media, folks!

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  • How did I miss this???? My favorite is APOLOGIZE DON’T JUSTIFY. The Ragu mess just keeps coming to mind; the classic professional athlete apology: ‘I’m sorry you were offended.’

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @AmyMccTobin TOTALLY agree! Ragu’s apology sucked. A true “non-apology, apology” (TM) 🙂

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  • Asking sorry is best if you really mean it! The people will realize you are not sincere with your apology if you are only sorry for the heck of it. Very well said article. I enjoyed reading this…

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @Rush Card Pro Good morning! Thank you so much for your comments. Yes, a sincere apology is the way to go – otherwise it’s just like listening to my 12 year old son apologizing which always sounds like, “I’m sorry – BUT…..” Have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.

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  • missmims1

    Perhaps the best example of this is in terms of pr is Domino’s. When the video scandal came out about Domino’s, the reaction from the company itself was very slow, which left people wondering, “what is this company doing about this?” However, eventually Domino’s was able to come back and apologize to its customers, fire the offending people, and turn their brand around. An apology makes all the difference because you are letting someone know that you have heard their outcry, and you understand why they feel that way. Apologies validate people’s feelings.

    • AnneWeiskopf

      @missmims1 Thanks so much for your comment, Dominio’s is great example. And yes, an HONEST apology does validate people’s feelings. Even if the transgression was inadvertent, one can still apologize for how the outcome impacted someone – intended or not. Cheers!

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