The Anatomy of an Apology

By: Guest | March 12, 2013 | 

Breakenridge, DeirdreToday’s guest post is by Deirdre Breakenridge.

The words “I’m sorry” can be very powerful and carry great meaning.

However, if you don’t have three important elements in your apology, your words may sound hollow.

They might also tarnish your reputation, and, quite possibly, end a valuable relationship.

Just stating, “I apologize” or “I’m sorry” is not enough today.

Being in PR, we are not strangers to negative sentiment and crisis situations, whether it’s miscommunications, rumors, unethical behaviors, natural disasters, and the list goes on.

A part of your role as a strategic counselor is to avert crisis as much as possible, and to also neutralize the negative situation, as quickly as possible.

The responsibilities of the Pre-Crisis Doctor, which I discuss in my book, focus on how to be more proactive with negative communications in the age of social conversations.

The Anatomy of an Apology

Yet, when the unexpected strikes and the words “I’m sorry” are in order, there are three parts of the apology to understand, before those very words are spoken.

  1. The Tone and Intent. How many times have you heard an apology and felt it was forced, almost as if someone was saying, “Now, say you’re sorry,” not because you want to, but because you have to. These are often the apologies delivered in legal terms with precise corporate language. A recent example of an apology that carried a corporate and legal tone was the Burger King apology to its fans and followers post a Twitter hacking.The statement read as if it was from a legal brief. “Earlier today, our official BK Twitter account was compromised by unauthorized users. Upon learning of this incident, our social media teams immediately began working with Twitter security administrators. We apologize to our loyal fans and followers, whom might have received unauthorized tweets from our account. We are pleased to announce the account is now active again.”Today, one of the most famous examples of the wrong tone and an uncaring sentiment was the apology from BP CEO Tony Hayward. He said, in reference to the Gulf oil spill, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives. There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I want my life back.”After millions of gallons of oil were pumped into the Gulf and people experienced incredible damage and suffering, as a result, hearing that Tony Hayward “wanted his life back” was an apology that carried no sincerity or feelings of truly being sorry. The tone and intent of Mr. Hayward’s apology made the situation worse and, most likely, sealed his fate.
  2. The Delivery. It really does matter where you say your apology. The channel where you deliver your heartfelt sentiment will make a difference.For example, I recently heard from a friend that she was feuding with her sister at a family gathering. She mentioned a few days later she received a text message that said, “I’m sorry.” Because the altercation happened in person, the best place to say you’re sorry is in person.Unless distance prevents you from meeting, the next best way to communicate is to pick up the telephone.Similarly, if you were dealing with a negative situation on YouTube, then you wouldn’t say you were sorry to your customers on Twitter (especially if the incident has not reached Twitter yet).

    A great example is the Dominos Pizza crisis in April of 2009. When two Dominos Pizza franchise employees decided to engage in disgusting acts with pizza pies on YouTube, president Patrick Doyle had an appropriate response through the right channel. Mr. Doyle created a YouTube video response to apologize to Dominos customers who may have seen or heard about the video.

    His apology was heartfelt, from the tone of his voice right down to his body language.

  3. Your Actions Beyond Words. Even if the tone of the apology is perfect and the delivery is through the appropriate channel, if your follow-up actions don’t back your words, the apology quickly loses meaning. Doing something to show people you are sorry could be any number of actions from crisis help lines and counseling to providing resources and financial support.In the aftermath of their crisis, BP worked hard to show the people of the Gulf they were committed to rebuilding the area and to getting business and life back on track.But, it took some strong actions and much better communications moving forward to demonstrate that BP was sorry, especially when the initial apology lacked any true substance.

Does Social Media Help or Hurt the Apology?

You might think social media only makes the situation worse when a company is in crisis. Regardless of how far your situation or apology will travel through social media, you should always focus on the key elements first, especially when conversations travel rapidly through web communities.

Social media creates heightened awareness and affects how memorable the incident will be, post apology. Social conversations will amplify the situation to an “audience of audiences” because there’s no shortage of remarks around a situation and/or the apology itself.

By nature, people will scrutinize the details with their peers in their favorite networks. This also occurred prior to social media – the news just didn’t travel as far or as fast. In addition, media and bloggers with real-time delivery of news and commentary and more interactive content add to how we remember the negative situation, or if we will move onto the next big crisis.

Start with the Anatomy of the Apology

Regardless of the different levels of negative situations and crisis escalation, it’s always best to start with the anatomy of the apology. As you check your tone/ intent and delivery method, and then decide how you will act on your promises, you have more of an opportunity to use social media to your advantage.

Communication travels quickly and your community may also come to your rescue when headlines read, “XYZ Company Takes Ads Down After Apologizing” or “ABC Firm Says it is Sorry With a Complete Recall.”

If you make a mistake (small or large scale), and an apology is in order, then act quickly. Deliver on those three important elements – the anatomy of your apology. Finally, use social media to increase awareness around your positive actions as you move forward. A meaningful apology backed by supportive measures, will keep your reputation and relationships in tact.

Deirdre Breakenridge is CEO of Pure Performance Communications. A 25-year veteran in public relations, she teaches at NYU and speaks nationally and internationally on the topics of PR, marketing and social media. She is the author of five business books, with her most recent book, Social Media and Public Relations: Eight New Practices for the PR Professional, published by Financial Times Press in May of 2012.

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77 responses to “The Anatomy of an Apology”

  1. ginidietrich says:

    Hey Deirdre! It seems like crisis communications and the apology are top-of-mind for both of us this week. I’ll take being on the same wavelength as you any day! Another great example of an apology done well is Bodyform. While the person they responded to commented on their Facebook wall, they took to video and answered it on YouTube, with a link to Facebook. The only thing I didn’t like is they hired an actor to shoot the video. It would have been more genuine had it actually been the CEO. But, in the big scheme of things, they know how to appropriately apologize. Something all executives would be good to remember.

    • dbreakenridge says:

      @ginidietrich I agree … why the actor and not the CEO?  They definitely took the right steps  but fell a little short in the genuine department. Crisis and social media is always the topic of the day these days 🙂 Thanks, Gini!

  2. BrianBlank says:

    Great post. I often get asked “What is our plan if <insert crisis> happens on < insert social media platform.>” I refer back to PR Crisis Management 101, act swiftly, sincerely and apologize with meaning and communicate along the entire way. Twitter only changes an apology because we are limited to 140 characters, but like @ginidietrich mentioned use a video that you can say more in and link back to it in your post. Timeliness, sincerity and transparency are the three main points of best handling a crisis on social media.

    • dbreakenridge says:

      @BrianBlank  @ginidietrich Yes, the timeliness is so important.  What used to be the 24 hour news cycle is no more.  Add in the sincerity and transparency and there is true meaning delivered quickly.

  3. SpinSucks says:

    RobinMarie Thanks for sharing Robin! It’s important to be sincere, timely and communicat along the way.

  4. ErikaJoyce says:

    Dierdre, this is a great article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and could not agree more with your observations and tips. Crisis management is an essential part of any business plan and I love your take on the anatomy of an apology. I used many of the same examples in a recent post I wrote for the Maine PR Maven ( about crisis management.

    • dbreakenridge says:

      @ErikaJoyce Hi … thanks and I will have to check out your post.  These are definitely the most well known!

  5. belllindsay says:

    Apologies (or lack thereof): The only one, true constant in social media. Great post Deirdre! 🙂

  6. JoelFortner says:

    Great read on something that can be hard RT pattiknight: The Anatomy of an Apology vSpinSuckscks

    • SpinSucks says:

      JoelFortner Thanks Joel!! Apologizing can definitely be hard, but very powerful too.

      • JoelFortner says:

        SpinSucks In my experience, one of the hardest things is simply getting people to do it. People hide behind lawyers or pride or both.

  7. AlishaLambert says:

    Take note. RT ginidietrich: The three things every apology should include by dbreakenridge

  8. All I could imagine when reading your section on tone and intent was when my kids quickly spit out a half-hearted “sorry” after they’ve done something — like it’s magic! 🙂 Living on the Gulf Coast, the BP comment was one that particularly stung. Unfortunately, I think the legal department gets (understandably) way too involved in how these messages are delivered sometimes.

    • dbreakenridge says:

      @TaraGeissinger Yes, I remember those days 🙂  BP definitely stung all the way around. And, clearly many companies struggle with the legal vs. the human approach.  There has to be that fine balance for the apology to carry more weight in the eyes of the public.

  9. ginidietrich says:

    LouHoffman Sigh. Lance.

  10. SpinSucks says:

    LouHoffman ginidietrich dbreakenridge I second Gini’s statement.

  11. SpinSucks says:

    DanneHotchkiss Thanks for sharing D’Anne!!

  12. SpinSucks says:

    martinwaxman dbreakenridge Thanks for sharing Martin! Hope all is well!

  13. SpinSucks says:

    Frank_Strong Hey Frank!! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  14. TMuellerFFM says:

    Sorry seems to be the hardest word… Good read via ginidietrich dbreakenridge

  15. AmyMccTobin says:

    Fantastic explanation of why apologies work, and don’t work. Isn’t it sad that we need this explanation, and we really, truly do.  SUPER. It’s a saver. And I am putting on my boyfriend’s pillow tonight as well. 🙂

    • dbreakenridge says:

      @AmyMccTobin Thank you Amy!  It is really sad to have to explain the best way to say “I’m sorry.”  From business to personal relationships, there is so much room for improvement in this area 🙂

  16. mitchellfriedmn says:

    ginidietrich dbreakenridge I usually just break out my “I’m sorry” t shirt like the ones in the Ruben Stoddard video (“Sorry for 2004”)

  17. ryancox says:

    I’d read 2-3 things that I already had dubbed the best read of the week. Then @AmyMccTobin shared this gem. @dbreakenridge I absolutely loved this, and the tone/context couldn’t have been better delivered. Communication not only travels quickly, but it can also stop landslides equally as fast.

    • dbreakenridge says:

      @ryancox  @AmyMccTobin Thank you very much.  And, yes, I couldn’t agree more about the landslides. We have the ability to stop them, but so many don’t consider the delivery of the apology, whether it’s legal pressures, haste or unfortunately insincerity.  Too many times we say, “In hindsight … ” With today’s apology and the speed of social media, we just can’t afford to say think that way.

      • ryancox says:

        @dbreakenridge  it’s as if their PR/Social Media/Marketing/Comms teams don’t see all of the other examples. When your company is slapped in the face with one, you should be able to take a quick step back and use them as real life learning examples.

  18. allenmireles says:

    @dbreakenridge You are so cool. And so RIGHT. (Sorry. Am I gushing?) Love the post, love the points you make. Now hurriedly taking myself offline( by the scruff of the neck) before I sound like an annoying sycophant.

  19. Allen Mireles says:

    I thought this post magnificent.

  20. SpinSucks says:

    ACoplin Agreed! Thanks for sharing Anjie 🙂

  21. SpinSucks says:

    barrettrossie Great advice PR/Comm/Marketing pros should put it to use! Thanks for sharing Barrett 🙂

  22. SpinSucks says:

    VoxOptima jocmbarnett Thanks for sharing 🙂 Great advice from dbreakenridge

  23. SpinSucks says:

    jasondyk Thanks for sharing Jason!! Tone, delivery and actions are so important when apologizing.

  24. SpinSucks says:

    AmyMccTobin Great read, thanks for sharing Amy 🙂

  25. SpinSucks says:

    jolynndeal Better late than never!! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  26. SpinSucks says:

    chillygal Great post with great advice. Thanks for sharing Jeri!

  27. SpinSucks says:

    felicitygrey Thanks for sharing Felicity!! There is great advice in that post.

  28. SpinSucks says:

    chillygal Thanks for sharing Jeri!! The post has great advice on how to apologize.

  29. SpinSucks says:

    PeterJakel Thanks for sharing Peter!

  30. SpinSucks says:

    cksyme Send it to all your PR/Marketing/Comm friends!! Thanks for sharing Chris 🙂

  31. dbreakenridge says:

    melissa_agnes Hey Melissa! I’ve been receiving your newsletter and I love it. You’re doing some really great work. Hope to catch up soon.

  32. LisaLarter says:

    seanmcginnis have you been keeping up with your champagne goals? Just checkin in

  33. MamieM423 says:

    “kmueller62: The Anatomy of an Apology vginidietrichic#PREL410410

  34. SpinSucks says:

    MorganR_Beirut Thanks for sharing Morgan! Smart post with great advice.

  35. jdrobertson says:

    Apologies are almost always suspect! They are often a quick way to avoid the consequences of the offending action. Exempli gratia:
    Attorney General Janet Reno at the time of the Waco, Texas Massacre, February 1993, where more than 80 men, women and children died as a result of her actions – stepped forth and accepted the responsibility simply saying, “I’m very sorry it happened.” The consensus among the populous was admiration for her for stepping up and accepting the responsibility for this heinous act. There were no consequences – saying, “I’m very sorry it happened,” got her off the hook.
    I might accept an apology if (hypothetically) you came to me and said, “ I ran into your car last night and I ‘ve made an appointment to get it repaired – you can use mine until yours is finished – I’m sorry!”
    I won’t accept an apology if you said, “I’m sorry I ran into your car last night,” because my faith in man does not extend to believing I’m going to get much more than that.
    To paraphrase my favorite verse from the book of James: Be ye a doer of the word and not a sayer only. THAT is the anatomy of an apology!

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