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.