The art of apologizing in 140 characters

On social media, when something goes wrong it escalates quickly. Here’s advice about how your Twitter team should (and shouldn’t) respond.

With its vast audiences and instantaneous communications model, Twitter is a great vehicle for brand building.

Businesses can connect with target audiences without any intermediary filter to obstruct or otherwise taint their message. They say what they want to say to the people they most want to reach.

At the same time, a company’s Twitter presence opens up the possibility of offending those same audiences or otherwise committing some sort of brand-damaging social media faux pas. When this occurs, there’s a lot riding on how well (or how poorly) a business apologizes—also via Twitter.

These days, it seems, businesses are apologizing all over the place. A recent study in the Journal of Pragmatics noted that, between 2010 and 2012, corporate Twitter accounts used the word “sorry” nearly nine times as often as individuals did. The words “apology” or “apologize” occurred over seven times more often for businesses, and the word “regret” popped up more than 37 times in corporate tweets.

With this frequency, it’s possible that at some point your business will respond to an online customer complaint in a way that reflects poorly on your brand. Or someone on your company’s Twitter account will tweet a poorly worded or just plain thoughtless message that threatens the integrity of your brand.

Whatever the situation, remember that what happens on social media stays on social media—so it’s vitally important to master the art of the apology. You must address the specific issue at hand, while demonstrating respect for your audience at large.

Perhaps the most sensational bad apology occurred recently when US Airways, responding to a customer complaint, inadvertently attached a sexually explicit image to its apology tweet (which went out to US Airways’ 400,000 followers and then to far more when the apology went viral).

The lesson here is that whoever is in charge of your social media account should check—and then double-check—any apology going out to the public.

“While many brands outsource their social media account management, it’s best to keep a close eye on what’s going on to reduce the risk of mistakes,” James Teideman writes on SocialBro. “It’s best to keep a close eye on what’s going on to reduce the risk of mistakes.”

So what’s the right way to send out a Twitter apology?

Be sincere. The direct approach is always the best. If you’re sincerely sorry for an error made by you or someone in your business, say so directly. Be sure the Twitter apology matches the voice of your brand elsewhere. Whitney Kasle at New Brand Analytics offers this negative example:

“Good morning, Twitter world! It’s #Friday and we’re ready to celebrate with some delicious eats!”

“@Anonymous we deeply regret your negative experience at our establishment. Contact us at your earliest convenience and we will resolve it.”

The disparity in tone between these two messages comes across as inauthentic and therefore unbelievable.

Don’t make excuses. It’s easy to blame an employee or intern for a thoughtless tweet or other botched business move. The best brands resist this impulse and instead take full responsibility.

For example, after a KitchenAid employee accidentally posted a tweet insulting President Obama’s grandmother on the company account, KitchenAid apologized:

“Deepest apologies for an irresponsible tweet that is in no way a representation of the brand’s opinion.”

Simple and sincere, with no finger pointing or excuses.

Promise to follow up, and keep the promise. If the apology relates to a customer service or product issue, your apology should include a promise to follow up on the issue. Then make sure your company takes steps to correct the problem. Nothing will damage your brand more than acknowledging a mistake has been made and doing nothing about it.

Include contact information. If you’re succinct in your heartfelt apology, there should still be space left over to include contact info, such as “email us @ DEPT.” This offers the recipient an opportunity to communicate at greater length and for your business to respond appropriately.

All great brands pride themselves on quality customer service, which includes a genuine and forthright apology when circumstances demand it. The same principle applies to your Twitter account. View the situation as an opportunity to enhance your brand and demonstrate your commitment to customers for the entire (Twitter) world to see.

Peter LaMotte is a senior vice president at Levick, a digital agency in Washington, D.C. He is also a contributing author to Levick Daily, where he writes about social media marketing and online reputation management.

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