Guest

The Anatomy of an Apology

By: Guest | March 12, 2013 | 
77

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.

Spin Sucks in Your Inbox

Leave a Reply

77 Comments on "The Anatomy of an Apology"

avatar

Sort by:   newest | oldest
ginidietrich
3 years 1 month ago
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… Read more »
dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@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!

BrianBlank
3 years 1 month ago

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
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@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.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

ErikaJoyce
ErikaJoyce
3 years 1 month ago

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 (http://www.maineprmaven.com/?p=4009) about crisis management.

dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

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

belllindsay
belllindsay
3 years 1 month ago

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

dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@belllindsay Thank you!  Glad you enjoyed the post.

JoelFortner
JoelFortner
3 years 1 month ago

Great read on something that can be hard RT pattiknight: The Anatomy of an Apology http://t.co/fQfuwWcEqDEqD vSpinSuckscks

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

JoelFortner
JoelFortner
3 years 1 month ago

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

AlishaLambert
AlishaLambert
3 years 1 month ago

Take note. RT ginidietrich: The three things every apology should include by dbreakenridge http://t.co/7XxFfFWOLmOLm

TaraGeissinger
3 years 1 month ago

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
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
3 years 1 month ago

LouHoffman Sigh. Lance.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

LouHoffman ginidietrich dbreakenridge I second Gini’s statement.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

DanneHotchkiss Thanks for sharing D’Anne!!

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

martinwaxman
martinwaxman
3 years 1 month ago

SpinSucks Thanks Yvette! Busy week, which is good. How are things with you?

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

martinwaxman Busy, busy, busy!!! I don’t even know where to begin my day!!

martinwaxman
martinwaxman
3 years 1 month ago

SpinSucks I know what you mean. Sometimes I have so many tabs open, I’m not sure which to look at first…

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

martinwaxman Ugh, I know! Kind of where I’m at this morning!!!

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

Frank_Strong Hey Frank!! Thanks for sharing :)

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong
3 years 1 month ago

SpinSucks You bet, Yvette.

TMuellerFFM
TMuellerFFM
3 years 1 month ago

Sorry seems to be the hardest word… Good read via ginidietrich dbreakenridge http://t.co/FyaEscR8Lm8#crisisprs#socialmediadia

AmyMccTobin
3 years 1 month ago

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
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@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 :)

mitchellfriedmn
mitchellfriedmn
3 years 1 month ago

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
3 years 1 month ago

mitchellfriedmn I need to see a photo of this dbreakenridge

mitchellfriedmn
mitchellfriedmn
3 years 1 month ago

ginidietrich dbreakenridge Me wearing the t-shirt, you mean???

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
3 years 1 month ago

mitchellfriedmn Yes! I want to see it!

mitchellfriedmn
mitchellfriedmn
3 years 1 month ago

ginidietrich will put it on my someday/maybe list

mitchellfriedmn
mitchellfriedmn
3 years 1 month ago

ginidietrich perhaps Jack Bauer should don a similar shirt given some of his antics

dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

mitchellfriedmn ginidietrich I guess the “I’m Sorry” T-Shirt is better than a hat :)

ryancox
3 years 1 month ago

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
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@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
3 years 1 month ago

@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.

dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@ryancox You would think so. Not sure what it’s going to take for that “wake up” call.

allenmireles
3 years 1 month ago

@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.

dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@allenmireles I’m going to end my night and take it offline on that high note … thank you for the wonderful compliment.

barrettrossie
3 years 1 month ago

Wow @allenmireles  Hope you don’t mind if I borrow “sycophant” bit. Nice advice, @dbreakenridge !

dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

@barrettrossie  @allenmireles Thank you :)

Allen Mireles
Allen Mireles
3 years 1 month ago

I thought this post magnificent.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

ACoplin Agreed! Thanks for sharing Anjie :)

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

VoxOptima jocmbarnett Thanks for sharing :) Great advice from dbreakenridge

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

jasondyk
jasondyk
3 years 1 month ago

SpinSucks couldn’t agree more :)

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

AmyMccTobin Great read, thanks for sharing Amy :)

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin
3 years 1 month ago

SpinSucks Loved that post.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

jolynndeal Better late than never!! Thanks for sharing :)

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

felicitygrey
felicitygrey
3 years 1 month ago

SpinSucks pleasure is mine!

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

chillygal
chillygal
3 years 1 month ago

SpinSucks It does indeed!

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

PeterJakel Thanks for sharing Peter!

PeterJakel
PeterJakel
3 years 1 month ago

SpinSucks Love your blog.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

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.

melissa_agnes
melissa_agnes
3 years 1 month ago

dbreakenridge Thanks Deirdre, it means a lot! Would love to catch up! Send me an email :)

dbreakenridge
dbreakenridge
3 years 1 month ago

melissa_agnes Great idea. Will email you to connect. Looking forward to chatting more.

melissa_agnes
melissa_agnes
3 years 1 month ago

dbreakenridge Same here! :))

LisaLarter
LisaLarter
3 years 1 month ago

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

MamieM423
MamieM423
3 years 1 month ago

“kmueller62: The Anatomy of an Apology http://t.co/femkgtySXJSXJ vginidietrichic#PREL410410

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 1 month ago

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

jdrobertson
3 years 1 month ago
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.… Read more »
trackback

[…] The Anatomy of an Apology […]

trackback

[…] Toronto, Rob Ford. In a crisis, step up early, accept responsibility for your actions, embrace the sincere apology, and learn from your […]

trackback

[…] PR team should have apologized for the low turnout, and offered to aggressively promote the story to ensure it is heard by those […]

trackback

[…] Say you’re sorry. Offer solutions. Take measures to ensure you don’t make the same mistake twice. These simple steps can go a long way in boosting your reputation, especially because you never really know who you might be dealing with. […]

trackback

[…] no avoiding whatever wrath might come our way. We decided to just lay down on the PR train tracks, admit we screwed up, and beg for […]

trackback

[…] male or female in business there is, of course, a time and a place for accountability and a sincere apology may be necessary.  However, in your daily dealings with colleagues and peers be strong and […]

trackback

[…] or feminine in enterprise there’s, in fact, a time and a spot for accountability and a honest apology could also be vital.  Nevertheless, in your every day dealings with colleagues and friends be […]

trackback

[…] Sucks—including the network of talented contributors has covered this topic extensively here, here, and again […]

trackback

[…] Sucks—including the network of talented contributors has covered this topic extensively here, here, and again […]

wpDiscuz
[postmatic_subscribe_widget]