Management January 14, 2014 Last updated September 18th, 2018 3,344 Reads share

How To Apologize When Your Company Screws Up

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Every single company on the face of the Earth will make a mistake at least once. Employees and their managers are human beings, and sometimes, they do inexplicably terrible things to their customers, and their actions demand some sort of response.

Typically, when this sort of problem takes place, companies are encouraged to issue a public apology, in the hopes of quelling the anger and proving their dedication to customer service and responsiveness. I’ve written about reputation management once before, and here, I discussed a company that issued what I like to call a “pseudo-apology.” In other words, the company officials expressed a twinge of regret, colored by a little bit of indignation.

Failed apologies like this are common, and they seem to stem from a basic misunderstanding of what saying sorry is supposed to do for a company. Additionally, few companies seem to recognize that getting an apology wrong means facing even more reputation damage.

How To Apologize When Your Company Screws Up

These are just a few techniques you can use in order to deal with your next corporate fire storm, along with just one word of warning that might keep you away from unnecessary grovelling.

#1. Pay Attention to the Details

Before you can provide a heartfelt apology for the mistakes your company made, you’ll need to know exactly what happened, when it happened and who was responsible. This is the stage of the game in which you’ll remind your employees that you’re not trying to point the finger or otherwise re-evaluate someone’s employment contract. Instead, you’re simply trying to get the facts straight in your mind. Write out a timeline, use a storyboard or otherwise make yourself a detailed map of the events that took place, so you’ll know just what to say when it’s time to speak.

#2. Begin By Apologizing

It sounds simple enough, but some companies seem to struggle with the idea that officials will need to use the words “I’m sorry” in a corporate apology.

For example, when private files were exposed during a Snapchat app problem on December 31, 2013, the company responded with a lengthy statement that did not contain these words. Not surprisingly, many users are demanding another statement that looks more like an apology.

When your company does something wrong, people notice and they’d like you to say you’re sorry. That’s how you should start.

#3. Detail How You’ll Fix the Problem in the Future

Saying you’re sorry can help to fix the reputation management problems of the past, but you’ll need to do much more in order to make your customers come back for a visit in the future. Outlining how the problem was spotted, and the changes you’ll make in the future to keep the issue from cropping up again, can help.

That’s what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg did in 2006, when changes to the site sparked the ire of consumers with privacy concerns. Near the end of his very long apology, he detailed the amount of work his teams were doing to provide better privacy control. And, he created a new user group online, so users could contact him with additional concerns.

This level of detail might seem damaging, as it does indicate that the company has room for improvement. But in general, consumers who are able to see a committed effort toward change might be more likely to give a company a second chance.

#4. Resist the Urge to Boast

Each time you release a press release, you’re likely tempted to talk up the talents and products of your company. You never know who might read these things, and who would give up a chance to toot the horn a little, right?

Unfortunately, adding even one sentence about your users, your profits or your past successes could spark the ire of your competitors. For example, in an article published by Forbes, this writer suggests that Apple’s apology for the recent Apple Maps fiasco rings false because the company also chose to explain how many people use the product. It’s just one sentence, but it’s enough to bother this writer.

When it comes to apologies, it’s best to be humble. Your company has done something wrong, so it’s the wrong time to load up on praise.

#5. Find the Right Forum

You might be tempted to use social media sites like Twitter or Facebook for your apology, since these sites allow for quick typing and rapid distribution. Unfortunately, many people think of these sites as informal, chatty spaces that aren’t worthy of a serious, heartfelt statement of regret.

For example, when an MSNBC host poked fun at the Romney family during a broadcast in 2013, an apology issued by Twitter was deemed totally inefficient. In fact, Fox News declared that the apology was simply, “… not enough.”

Issuing a press release, writing a blog post or otherwise digging deep into your formal communication channels is the best way to handle a serious screw up. You can certainly use your social media sites to allow people to find your press releases and blogs, but they shouldn’t be the vehicles you use to deliver your apology.

#6. Know When to Stop

Sometimes, people aren’t satisfied with a simple apology. They’d like to hammer the issue home, and pull your reputation down in the process. Similarly, competitors, prior enemies and other malicious people might attack your company for reasons you can never ameliorate with an apology.

It’s sad, but reputation management companies deal with these sorts of issues on a regular basis. In fact, if an attack has no merit at all, it might be better to consult with a company like this, rather than apologizing for something that your company simply did not do.

Have you handled a screw up for your company in the past? How did you apologize, and how was that note received? I’d love to hear your story in the comment section.

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Jean Dion

Jean Dion

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