Mean what you say: Sincerity and public apologies

Hailing back to the time of Aristotle in ancient Greece, we’ve come to understand that in order to have meaningful discourse with people we want to reach, we have to be in tune with them and genuinely care about them. According to Aristotle, dialogue needs to begin with our shared beliefs, or doxa. Others’ beliefs and values should be important to anyone trying to engage in communication. Similarly, Kenneth Burke believed that impactful communication could only occur when one person “speaks” the language of another, whether by word, gesture, tone, or attitude. Only when we make the effort to align ourselves with our audience will we gain meaningful interaction, encouraging the cooperation and participation of the audience.

In the field of public relations, this empathetic communication model is extremely important, as the public’s cooperation and receptivity is vital to an organization’s survival. Rather than taking the Platonic, traditional PR approach of speaking one-sidedly to your publics, a two-sided approach creates open communication and fosters trust between individuals and an organization. This topic was discussed in more detail in a previous article.

Building public trust and commitment towards your organization takes time. However, as quoted in an Entrepreneur article by Sunil John, “Trust is something that you earn in drops but lose by the bucket load.” When organizations mess up, it’s crucial to maintain interaction and empathy with the affected publics. So, how can an organization that made a mistake, possibly causing loss of money, damage to its image, and customer dissatisfaction, make up for the damage done?

Well, the first step is always to apologize. In Hubspot’s article, “The Public Apology Letter: 6 Brands That Nailed It,” marketer Amanda Zantal-Wiener analyzes the do’s and don’ts of organizational apologies. By first looking at an example of a poor emailed apology, the article outlines three qualities of good apologies:

  1. Be specific. Acknowledge the full extent of the mistake without being vague or using language that minimizes the damage.
  2. Express remorse. Sincerely apologize for the mistake, making it clear that you were in the wrong.
  3. Show how you will move forward. Make it clear what steps you will take to fix the problem, demonstrating that you care about making things right.

An apology that fails in these areas will make your organization come across as unsympathetic or not truly sorry for the mistake. Therefore, PR practitioners finding themselves in a position of needing to apologize to their publics must take care with how they construct their message and how they deliver it, whether in spoken word, social media, or other means.

One example the article gave of an organization that apologized well was Zocdoc, an online service that links users with doctors with various specialties. Occasionally, a doctor will fail to update their schedule, and so users book an appointment for an unavailable time slot. In such a case, Zocdoc sends the following message:

Photo from Amanda Zantal-Wiener at Hubspot

What does this email apology message do well? First, it immediately specifies what happened and why it shouldn’t have happened. Next, the email makes the conciliatory move of offering a gift card for any inconvenience experienced by the user. Next, it demonstrates Zocdoc’s willingness to improve by suggesting the user email them with feedback, also explicitly stating that the company wants to make it right.

Another emailed apology from Naked Wines takes a more humorous and over-sincere angle. The email is a follow-up to a user who unsubscribed from Naked Wines:

Photo from Econsultancy

While arguably over-conciliatory, this email is no doubt meant to be a light-hearted encouragement to give feedback or perhaps reconsider unsubscribing from Naked Wines.

To further understand sincerity and public apology, let’s briefly consider the two recent examples of PR failure discussed earlier on this blog and their organizations’ resulting apologies. After the incident of a man being dragged off a United Airlines flight, United’s CEO issued a vague and seemingly unsympathetic apology for having to “re-accomodate” a passenger. The full timeline of United’s public statements is nicely summarized by the New York Times. The language of the CEO’s initial statement minimized the severity of the incident, and this apology was not accepted, as the following social media storm made clear. While the statement wasn’t intended to fix all of the damage to the airline, it wouldn’t have hurt to adopt a more “human” and sincere voice when constructing a message following such a major incident that garnered worldwide attention.

However, Adidas’ apology for their poor word choice following the Boston Marathon was much more tasteful. In the message, the sports apparel company expressed that they were “incredibly sorry” and that they “deeply apologize for our mistake.” Adidas posted their apology on the same social networks that lambasted them for their error, thus directly combating the ill favor. Publicizing an apology in an online space that allows for user interaction is arguably much more “on the same level” of the public as opposed to a statement from the CEO. One is proactive, the other reactive. The one feels sincere while the other does not.

The public expects an organization to feel bad for making a mistake, especially if people were harmed because of the error. We as humans expect not only an apology, but a heartfelt one. An organization cannot undo all the damage it caused right away, “but one thing you can do immediately is to admit your mistake. Ask for feedback. Be transparent. And remember — ‘I’m sorry’ can go a long way” (Hubspot). Proactively offering an authentic apology to the public is a sure sign that you have your constituents’ best interest at heart, that you’re willing to step down, receive their criticism, and grow as a result of the mistake.

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