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The One Difference Between a Good and Bad Brand Apology

When crisis hits, it’s often the reaction and not the event itself that draws public attention.

The apology is anticipated, analyzed and discussed ad nauseum. Your reputation is at stake, and the way you react will be your legacy.

Formal Brand Apology

Then BP CEO Tony Hayward downplayed events on the Gulf Oil spill until facts surfaced and his apology is now infamous: “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” And he is no longer BP CEO.

Recently, a toy company apologized  for using Beastie Boys music in their promotions without permission. It is against the wishes of the late Adam Yauch who never wanted their music to be used for commercial purpose.

The apology is on the bottom of the home page, in small type with the headline “Announcement.” There is a well-scripted paragraph with an apology and a promise not to use music without permission again.

Is an apology a real apology when it’s been mandated by a court settlement? It feels a lot like it came from the boy next door who got in trouble and is kicking the dirt staring at the ground, as he reluctantly mumbles “I’m sorry” because his mom made him do so.

Mastering the ability to apologize has never been more important than now with the amplified online conversation. The public watches, scrutinizing, with baited breath for a brand to make one mistake…then they pounce. Because of that, there is a feeling of one-upmanship in the world of apologies. Who can make the best apology? What will they do? Say?

It doesn’t have to be that hard. There is one key quality:

The one thing that differentiates a good apology.

A good apology comes from the heart. Your audience is watching to see how you react because they want to see if you care. And you should care.

After a storm in 2007 led to 1,000 canceled flights and stranded passengers for days, Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman apologized on what many consider to be one of the first video apologies. He’s not a great speaker, and you can tell that although he had talking points, he wasn’t reading from a script.

The apology works because you can see he cares deeply. You can see he’s upset, and that he is making changes organizationally to fix the problem. Towards the end he said:

“We want you to have confidence in us. We have taken care of you for seven years. We will be an even better company because of the very difficult things our customers and crew members had to endure over the past week.”

It’s humbling and we swallow a bit of pride when we do apologize and it’s the difference between maintaining your reputation or not. So lose the script and the ego; and get real.

The anatomy of a good apology:
  • Start with the word “I” or “We” and the word “sorry” or “apologize.”
  • Dont follow it with the word “but.” Using the word “but” leads to deflecting accountability. Own up to the problem.
  • Know the difference between an excuse and an explanation. Explanations answer our questions – why did this happen? Why did my Internet go down for 24 hours? Why did the plane crash? They aren’t excuses; they are causes to the problem, which you are then going to talk about how you will resolve moving forward.
  • Come from the heart. If you don’t mean it, it will show, and it will fall flat. It will possibly make matters worse and draw more attention to a situation you really want to go away. Just like BP’s Tony Hayward and the toy company’s apology.

Companies survive bad apologies every day. But you want to do more than survive. You want to thrive; to use crises as a teaching moment and to solidify loyalty with your audience. People are far more likely to forgive when you show your human side. We all err, but we don’t all apologize well.

Lisa Gerber is the founder of Big Leap Creative, where she helps organizations and executives take their big leaps by communicating their ideas. 

For more marketing advice from Lisa Gerber, click here.

Image: BureauOf Communication

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