Cary Cooper, Sean O'Meara - The Apology Impulse

Saying sorry and asking for forgiveness is an essential human ritual. It indicates that we can tell when we’ve done something wrong, and that we’re able to take responsibility. That’s why every major religion includes acts of repentance, and parents go to such great lengths to teach their toddlers to apologize as soon as they can speak.

But these days, apologies are being issued so frequently that they’ve completely lost their value. And often, apologies are being formulated so evasively by lawyers and PR teams that they’re actually excuses or defenses dressed up as an apology.

Corporations are apologizing so much that saying sorry has lost its meaning.

Industries like airlines, taxi services, and supermarkets are especially sensitive to customer complaints because it’s very easy for a customer to change companies if they’re unhappy. That means “high friction” industries like banks and telecom companies invest a lot less energy in customer service, while “low friction” ones, like airlines, have to work very hard to keep your custom.

The advent of social media has meant that customers get to air their grievances on the world stage. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter give companies a way to directly interact with their customers, which can have enormous advantages for strengthening their brands. But on the other side, it gives customers a perfect platform to “name and shame” corporations who have displeased them.

To appease such customers, corporations have taken to apologizing – all the time. While this outpouring of remorse might seem like a positive thing, it’s actually made the act of saying sorry lose its meaning. If a company employs a strategy of tactical appeasement in response to every complaint, it weakens the legitimacy of genuine apologies. Corporations need to keep a sense of proportion when deciding if – and how – to apologize. Making a grovelling apology for a minor transgression makes light of more serious injuries.

Outrage capitalism has fueled transactional apologies.

Viral news writers have worked out a sure-fire formula for getting people to read and share stories: appealing to their sense of outrage. The best way to do that is with narratives about innocent customers fighting against villainous corporations. That’s why writers are constantly on the lookout for juicy customer complaints. When they report on them, a tweet which may have been instantly buried on Twitter is suddenly given a lot of exposure, amplifying the story and putting even more pressure on the corporation to apologize. This cycle of manufactured outrage has resulted in crisis fatigue for corporations. They’re so wary of complaints blowing up in the media that they try to appease customers at all costs, even if they haven’t actually done anything wrong.

Outrage capitalism doesn’t end with viral news sites. Humiliating brands has become a lucrative industry. “Dark PR” strategies focus on discrediting brand competitors by using nefarious tricks such as posting complaints from fake accounts. Up until now, online influencers have been known for brand endorsements. However, several have also been offered large sums of money to discredit a brand for the benefit of their competitors.

How do brands respond to outrage capitalism, and distinguish genuine, valid grievances from frivolous or antagonistic complaints? Simply put, they need to stop panicking in the face of criticism and take some time to reflect on what the best course of action might be in a particular situation. Sometimes a genuine apology is merited. But in other cases they need to stand up to what amounts to a shakedown by the viral news industry.

Companies are making promises that they can’t live up to.

Today, many brands promise not only to provide goods and services but also to be committed to social causes.

But for many other brands, aligning with social causes is more a superficial marketing ploy than a structural commitment. When a customer inevitably spots a mismatch between their social commitments and actual practices, they’re faced with a cultural failure, which is very hard to fix. So they’re forced to apologize over and over again.

Instead of promising customers the world and then disappointing them, companies should change their marketing to reflect who they really are: businesses that want to make money in return for providing goods or services.

Corporations have mastered the art of saying sorry, not sorry.

Corporate apologies are famous for being full of these kinds of linguistic gymnastics. One corporate strategy is to use euphemisms or jargon to try to make a situation look better than it actually is. Another is to subtly cast doubt on the victim’s version of events by using evasive language.

All effective apologies are predicated on the guilty party acknowledging and then taking full responsibility for what happened. Only then can they ask for forgiveness. By using jargon, euphemisms, and slippery language, corporate apologies have become empty defensive statements, rather than true expressions of remorse.

Companies are forgetting that apologies must always be centered on the injured parties.

It might seem very obvious that an apology should focus on the people who have been hurt. But many corporations make the mistake of focusing on how the situation is affecting them, rather than the injured party. When you’re recovering from your fall and nursing your broken leg what you want to hear is that people see how you’re suffering and what broader impact it’ll have on your life. And that they’re very, very sorry. Apologizing doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

Saying sorry isn’t enough. Companies have to walk their talk.

Another way to signal the seriousness of your intent is to put your money where your mouth is and show that you’re willing to take a financial blow to put things right.

Making reparations directly to affected groups is another effective strategy. But just throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away. The ritual of reparations is delicate, and has to be handled with respect and sensitivity.

Sometimes it’s better not to apologize at all.

You might think that when you complain about a company, you’re talking about an abstract, faceless entity. But really, behind any organization’s PR strategy there’s a team of real people, and they’re often quaking in their boots when on the receiving end of a negative social media campaign.

When you have thousands of angry tweets and Facebook posts accusing your company of the worst possible things and threatening a boycott, it can be easy to panic and try to do anything to appease them. But a corporation needs to keep a sense of perspective and be able to tell the difference between the feelings of its actual client base and its social media following. The loudest voices on Twitter may not actually be the people who buy its products.

The fitness supplement brand Protein World understood this distinction very well. When its billboard campaign attracted widespread criticism for featuring a bikini-clad model with the tagline “Are you beach body ready?” it simply refused to apologize. This seemed like a risky move, but it actually worked in the company’s favor – it attracted 20,000 new customers and generated one million pounds in sales over four days. The company understood that its core market consisted of people who were motivated to work out and look just like the model on the billboard. By refusing to appease its critics, Protein World signaled loyalty to its real customers. As this example shows, criticism isn’t always a bad thing for a brand.

When the flood of criticism comes, PR teams need to take a few deep breaths and start investigating before they blurt out an apology. If they review the facts and discover they’re culpable, then they need to say sorry unreservedly and take steps to make things right. But if in fact no apology is due, they should stand strong and stick to their principles. It's a difficult call to make, but it's the only way to safeguard the true meaning of saying sorry.

Corporations say sorry all the time, but nobody really means it. They’re just apologizing to try and escape damage at the hands of disgruntled customers whose complaints are amplified by the viral media. In order to reclaim the act of saying sorry as an expression of genuine remorse, we need to apologize only when we’ve actually done something wrong. When we say sorry, we should focus on the experience of the people who’ve been hurt, take full responsibility for our actions, and follow through on our promises of reform and reparation.

When faced with a conflict, take some time to reflect before responding.

When someone is angry with you, it’s very tempting to reply immediately and try to placate them, or maybe fire back an angry response of your own. But the best responses are thoughtful ones. Take a day to really look at the situation and do some soul-searching. Are you at fault? And if so, how can you make it right? One well-crafted response is much more effective than a barrage of messages blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.

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