How to say ‘I’m sorry’ and make it stick

Love may mean never having to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but organizations can’t afford to flub their apologies. Here’s how to get them right.

Each day seems to bring a fresh story of PR missteps in the news.

Pepsi. Adidas. The White House. Don’t forget the poster child of poor apologies, United.

This is nothing new. Organizations can and will make mistakes.

Although you may feel you’ve read enough about these latest public relations nightmares, one area you might want to focus is on the importance of the apology.

As communicators, we help organization develop messages for all types of scenarios. One of the most crucial roles we play is working with our clients to formulate a decent apology.

It’s not about just simply saying, “I’m sorry” and moving on. A poor apology can be worse than no apology. An apology must include certain key elements in order for the public to accept it—and to maintain your brand’s good standing with customers.

In recent weeks we’ve watched many brands apologize, but not all of them scored an “A” in the mea culpa department.

What goes into a good apology? Remember these five elements:

1. Timing. The apology should be issued quickly. In these days of social media, news—good or bad—can spread like wildfire. Brands no longer have days, or even hours, to respond to a PR crisis. They have to act fast. It’s important to do it right on your first try. United, for example, took THREE attempts to get the tone of its apology right.

2. Sincerity. When people find themselves in a situation where they need to apologize, they’ll often deny any wrongdoing. Why?

“Denial is the simple thing to do, and people grasp wildly at the first straw to occur to them,” William Benoit, an Ohio University communications professor and author, told USA Today.

By apologizing for “reaccommodating” the passenger and using a defiant tone, United flubbed its first two attempts. It wasn’t until United CEO Oscar Munoz appeared on Good Morning America, using words like “shame” and “embarrassment,” that he began to come across as remorseful. When United announced it would refund the fares of all the passengers on the affected flight, its gesture illustrated empathy. An apology should be heartfelt and genuine.

3. Personal responsibility. If you’ve done something wrong, don’t make excuses or try to shift the blame. People appreciate the honesty of simply saying, “We messed up and we’re sorry.”

Experts agree this is one of the best ways to begin rebuilding trust. For example, when Sean Spicer misspoke about Hitler’s use of chemical weapons in World War II, his initial statements afterward were more of a clarification than an apology. But later, he actually did take responsibility for the situation and said the words, “I apologize.”

4. Plain talk. There’s no need to use fancy words. Simple language is best. Use words that your audience relates to.

In the case of United and #Leggingsgate, United made the mistake of trying to defend itself by talking about how the girls in question were flying using “buddy passes.” This term is meaningless to the general public and only muddied the waters further.

5. An explanation of what happened. If it’s warranted, explaining what happened can also help folks understand—and perhaps be more forgiving.

For example, when it was revealed that PricewaterhouseCoopers was behind the Best Picture debacle at the Academy Awards this year, not only did it apologize the next day, but it offered an explanation of what happened. In the end, it was able to keep its client.

Michelle Garrett is a PR consultant and writer at Garrett Public Relations. Follow her on Twitter @PRisUs or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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