When did you first learn how to apologize?
Let’s imagine a typical form of apology training. As a child, you got angry at a kid who stole chocolate pudding from your lunchbox. You fought him on the playground to exact revenge.
You and the pudding thief ended up in the principal’s office. You were forced to acknowledge that you were just as wrong as the other kid, and compelled to share a perfunctory cease-fire handshake. You were both sent home to think about your actions.
Does that sound familiar?
Most of us never learn how to properly apologize. We learn to say “I’m sorry”—only when absolutely forced to—and not much else. Unfortunately, the stakes get higher as we age. Anyone who works for a living (or hopes to have any sort of lasting relationship) should learn the art of the apology.
Corporate America still doesn’t quite grasp this straightforward concept of the genuine, immediate apology, though it could save them billions in business and heaps of embarrassing PR blowback.
United we (don’t) stand
We recently saw two depressing episodes of apologies gone wild, with Pepsi’s disastrous Kendall Jenner advertisement and United Airlines’ baffling string of non-apologies. If United had fessed up right away, and if Pepsi had taken a different tack in its initial response, both organizations could have mitigated the backlash.
Most companies fail to realize that choosing to apologize is a strategy and giving an apology is a tactic .
For starters, there is a huge difference between “I’m sorry for” and “I apologize for.” The verb in the first sentence is “am,” and “sorry” is the adjective modifying that state of being. It’s all about the condition of the offending party.
In the second sentence, the verb is “apologize.” It’s an action. People want to see action, not a process.
Regarding United Airlines, clearly there was no strategy behind the apology, as evidenced by the now infamous corporate blather, “re-accommodate.” There were attempts to make the problem go away, to put the onus on a belligerent passenger and to frame it as a law enforcement issue, but the lack of a larger plan made the issue explode.
A genuine apology must include responsibility, sympathy and accountability. A full statement of apology must include the following six elements:
1. Acknowledge what you did wrong.
2. Take responsibility for your actions.
3. Acknowledge the impact your actions had on others.
4. Apologize for having caused pain or done damage.
5. State your future intentions and repair the damage.
6. Above all else, do not make excuses.
Organizations often neglect one or more of those ingredients. A baseball manager recently offered the meaningless mea culpa: “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” That is a pat response for people who are forced to apologize and have no interest in expressing any real remorse. A strong apology must prove that you’re holding yourself accountable.
Blaming external issues for your blunder is another common, misguided practice. Sure, there could be “problems in the system” where you work, but do you think your customers care about that? They care about how your organization failed them.
Saying specifically how you’re going to repair the damage and rectify the situation offers proof that you’re putting your money where your mouth is. Otherwise, your wallet will be as empty as your words.
Michael Shmarak is a senior-level strategist and communications counselor, with extensive experience in public relations strategy, national media relations, message development, crisis communications, organizational positioning and staff development. A version of this post originally appeared on Commpro.