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The sorry state of companies’ public apologies

An anti-checklist for saying what you need to.

It’s bad enough when someone at your company is rude to a customer. Or damages an order during shipping. Or releases shoddy mobile apps. Or hacks into personal cell phone accounts. Or misleads investors and causes an economic collapse. Or unleashes environmental damage that will last for untold years.

But you also have to figure out how to apologize for those things.

Company apologies these days, much like politicians’ sound bites and celebrities’ tweets, are picked over like “gulls pick over fish on a rock,” says Paul Maccabee, president and owner of public relations firm Maccabee in Minneapolis. Bloggers at “take apart apologies of all sorts, asking, ‘Was that a good apology, or did it just make things worse?’”

News outlets compare and rate company apologies: “The 10 Most Famous Company Apologies,” “6 Ways Big Businesses Apologize,” “The Best Company Apology Ever Posted to Twitter.” Apple got its very own list in InformationWeek last fall, “Apple’s Top 20 Public Apologies,” though that seems like a dubious honor.

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Apologies from companies used to go just to the people involved in a problem. Now they feed the maw of an insatiable opinion mill.

“Whether it pertains to me or not, if I’m a customer of Delta’s or I’m a customer of Cub Foods or whatever, and this thing makes the rounds, I’m going to read it and I’m going to have an opinion about it,” says Beth LaBreche, a public relations veteran who is vice president of strategic development at Gage, a marketing firm in Minneapolis.

“Sorry” was never easy to say, but the stakes seem higher now. You can count on your words getting a lot of scrutiny. But will they get the result you intended: forgiveness?

People who handle these problems for a living say that depends less on overcoming new complexities than on remembering something much simpler: Be human.

There’s an ideal, but no formula

Where there are opinions, there are also benchmarks against which apologies are being measured. All those bloggers and editors and customers and their friends have something in mind when they decide whether an apology is “good.”

Sometimes they spell it out. Experts of both the real and armchair varieties have filled the web with how-to guides for apologizing. But no one who spoke for this article offered a checklist or even believes in such a thing. “Hilarious,” LaBreche calls them.

“People feel if they go through the motions, then that’s good—or good enough,” says Bob Gagne, a strategic and crisis consultant for Exponent Public Relations in Minneapolis. “Look at Lance Armstrong. He went through the motions.”

Clients often take their apologies through multiple rewrites; Gagne finds that “those revisions tend to scrub away authenticity,” moving the apology away from sincere expression. He reminds them that “if this apology does not connect on a human level, then we’re less likely to be resolving this circumstance.”

“Authentic” and “human” are easier to say than to define, but LaBreche believes those qualities come in part from speaking in the voice of a real person, not a disembodied business entity.

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She liked Apple’s letter of apology for its faulty maps application last fall because it came from “somebody—the right person, not the lawyer, not the head of marketing, but somebody who needs to own the responsibility and can do something about it.” She might have liked it even better in a broadcast or video format, she says, where people can look the speaker in the eye.

But the letter got other things right. It was quick to deliver an actual apology and some of its humanness came from empathy. The words “sorry” and “frustration” are in the first brief paragraph. It showed even more solidarity with customers by recommending that they use competing apps until Apple could work out its bugs.

Empathy can backfire, though. LaBreche cringed as everyone else did when BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward apologized for a massive oil spill in 2010.

Executives who aren’t on the front lines or “have just been on the ivory pillar for too long” sometimes lack the perspective to make an authentic connection with the audience, she says. “I mean, from a PR perspective, I can tell what this guy was trying to do. He was trying to say, ‘This is really crappy for all of us,’ right? And he threw himself in there to say, ‘Me, too. Look what I’m going through. I’m going through anguish just like you are.’ He was trying to empathize, but his anguish is so far removed from what a shrimp fisherman’s anguish is living on the Gulf Coast.”

Maccabee links authenticity to motivations, and says it’s hard to achieve if the motivations aren’t the same ones that apply in personal relationships. “What is the purpose of the apology?” he asks. “Is it a moral and ethical decision? When we say something mean to a partner or family member, we apologize because we feel morally bound to. Or is it—and I think this is the reason for the vast majority of business apologies—because if you lose good will you lose market share and you lose brand value and you could lose tens of millions of dollars?”

In other words, are you apologizing because you hurt customers, or because you don’t want customers to hurt you?

Social media haven’t changed everything

“Here’s the bad news,” Maccabee says. “In a multimedia, sharable, social media world, anything we do or say can be captured in video or audio or still image and then sweep the globe.” Your call center’s snarky customer service rep? Viral.

What companies tend to overlook, he says, is the flip side of the coin. “The good news is that the channels that are now available to monitor those kinds of complaints and respond to them at the speed of Twitter are remarkable.” Tools like Sysomos or Radian6 mean “the speed of the complaint can be matched by the speed of making things right.”

But adoption of social media monitoring has been slow, he adds, and it’s compounded by other drags on responsiveness. Maccabee says CEOs, especially older ones, often err on the side of cautious deliberation when faced with a public relations flare-up, afraid that they’ll be taking on liability in some future litigation, but that fear is largely a misconception.

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“The companies that will preserve their reputations in coming years will be those that respond right away, understanding that a subsequent response can be in more detail,” he says. Investigation, more information, and even vindication can come later. “Right now, show your empathy, show your heart.”

Social media have not changed everything about the way companies need to handle public criticism and complaints, Maccabee and others say. They see just a few real changes. The need to respond quickly is one; the need to choose a venue with enough visibility—usually the same one where the complaint was made—is another. It’s easy for messages to get lost when there are so many channels for delivering them.

Why, Gagne wonders, did software company Intuit bury its apology on a corporate blog when there were coding problems in its TurboTax software for Minnesota users? The errors were in the news, and California-based Intuit released a statement to the media about how it was fixing the situation. But this critical line from the blog post was missing from the press release: “We’re sorry for the inconvenience and delays this caused our customers.”

LaBreche says a third real change brought on by social media is that no one can assume they have a limited audience anymore. There was a time when “an employee thing happened, and you apologized to employees; a shareholder thing happened, and you apologized to shareholders; you had a setback with one large company, and you apologized to that one customer. And those were very controlled channels,” she says. Now every apology has to be written for public consumption. “You have to write it considering all the different audiences that may weigh in, with very limited information, to judge whether this is authentic or not.”

Focusing on social media, however, can leave companies with blind spots elsewhere, LaBreche says. A medical device company she worked with was taking hard knocks from a patient who was unhappy with his implant. He kept an audience of online followers informed of his troubles as they unfolded. Eventually he went in for surgery to have the equipment removed.

“Part of our counsel to the client was, ‘Are you sending flowers to the hospital, or has somebody personally reached out to him on this important day when he’s getting surgery?’ And it had not occurred to the company to do that.

“Companies nowadays, with social media, get really wrapped up as to ‘How is this going to look, and what’s the strategy, and how is this going to be reputation- or perception-wise?’” LaBreche says. “And they forget about some of the fundamentals of just human interaction.”

What are you going to do about it?

Anyone who doubts the power of an apology should look at the evidence from health care, Gagne says. Doctors’ disclosure of their mistakes and apologies to patients have been shown to reduce malpractice lawsuits related to medical errors.

But words can never be a standalone solution. With clients, Gagne says he never starts the conversation with the problem at hand. “We start with ‘What are your business objectives?’” A plan of action comes from answering that question and others: What are your corporate values? Who are your customers? What do they expect from your company?

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This is why apologizing “is simple and it’s not so simple at the same time,” LaBreche says. “It’s not simple because an apology is always part of a bigger ecosystem of what’s going on and how the company is going to deal with it operationally.”

Her first-hand experience of complaining about a retailer via Twitter was that she got an impressively quick first response from the company, only to be left dangling. Employees weren’t “integrated and empowered” enough to keep the dialogue going. It was nice to know they were listening, LaBreche says, but what she needed to hear was “‘Here’s what I’m going to do next. You can expect a phone call,’ and then there’s more action that takes place and hopefully it gets resolved offline.”

That didn’t happen with the retailer, but LaBreche says she sees a trend among her clients: “Some large companies are trying to figure out how customer service overlaps with social media in new kinds of ways.” It reminds her of the innovative Comcast Cares Twitter account. The Pennsylvania-based cable television service started using Twitter about five years ago not just to listen to and talk with customers but to move quickly into action mode, giving them initial technical support or billing help.

Communications and customer service departments will be collaborating more, she believes, and bringing in IT, operations, and human resources, as well.

FedEx already took a step in that direction a few years ago. The thoughtless delivery guy caught dumping the computer monitor over a customer’s fence for all the world to see on YouTube? He worked for FedEx. The company apologized and then turned the video into “a training tool to show [employees] what not to do,” Maccabee says.

We’ll wait and see

“I do think the public has gotten cynical about any public figure, whether it’s a CEO or a sports figure or a celebrity, who says ‘I’m sorry,’” Maccabee says. “It raises the bar for corporations to do what you inevitably [need to] do with an apology,” he adds: Prove that you mean it.

Which brings up the idea again that customer relationships are human relationships and they work on the same principle of trust: “If someone cheats on their spouse and they apologize, they’ve only gone halfway,” Maccabee says. “The next 50 percent is not sleeping with anyone else and making it right and building trust back again.” It takes time.

Twin Cities BusinessGagne recounts how a client, a small family-owned ag business, was hit with a product recall. The owner apologized to customers, hauled his product out of their facilities, and replaced it with a competitor’s to tide them over. We’ll be back, he told them. A year later, when he was back with new product, his sales were up 30 percent from what they had been.

What’s underappreciated about apologies, Gagne believes, is that when people in the company learn from them, they can drive quality and a culture of trust and accountability, and improve the company’s performance.

Whatever discomfort apologies bring, he says, “not being accountable for actions within your company, not realizing that things have drifted, I think, creates a far bigger problem.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.