Whether as an individual or as a corporation, being told you’ve failed in some way is hard. When we’re criticized, we feel an intoxicating blend of anxiety and shame. We’re hardwired to avoid alienation, and our survival instincts tell us criticism is the first step on the path to ostracization. It’s nature.
So it’s understandable that people often respond to criticism impulsively. While researching our book, The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It, noted organizational psychology professor Sir Cary Cooper and I analyzed hundreds of corporate apologies. We were fascinated by the various ways organizations manage to mess up the simple (not easy, but simple) process of saying sorry.
Take “Schrödinger’s apology,” a phrase that describes a very specific type of very bad apology in which the apologizer is simultaneously guilty and innocent of the thing for which they are sorry. You’ve seen it before: “We take the privacy of our customers extremely seriously and are committed to the highest standards of data security …”
You know there is a “but” coming. If your bank issued a statement like that, you’d seriously consider changing your password.
There are lots of ways to botch an apology — but how can organizations respond to criticism credibly, without damaging their own reputations and further enraging their customers?
By asking three very simple questions, companies can address criticism sincerely and with the amount of self-examination consumers demand.
Question 1: Are We Sorry?
It sounds simplistic, but this is the first step toward protecting the integrity of the word “sorry.” For many organizations, the only response to criticism is to apologize. This may take the form of a reflexive “We’re sorry to hear this” or a qualified “We’re sorry you feel that way.” Either way, it’s not healthy.
It is essential for organizations to understand that being criticized isn’t the same as being guilty. Brands are criticized on social media all the time. It doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong.
Take H&M. In January 2018, the brand was accused of selling blasphemous socks. The socks were definitely not blasphemous. It was an eccentric conspiracy theory. But H&M behaved as if it were at fault. A company spokesperson even said as much: ” … because our customers have complained, we have chosen to recall the items.”
This kind of response devalues the concept of being sorry. If all it takes is one person with a Twitter account to force a humiliating product recall from one of the world’s largest retailers, how are consumers supposed to know when an organization is genuinely sorry and when it’s just performing? Consumers can spot an insincere apology a mile off, and it is one of the main drivers of consumer mistrust during a crisis.
If an organization examines its conduct and decides it was not as fault, it should offer an explanation. In a bizarrely similar incident to the H&M socks mini-scandal, British retailer Marks & Spencer provided a good example of how to respond to unfounded criticism.
Accused of selling blasphemous toilet tissue, Marks & Spencer replied via Twitter: “The motif on the aloe vera toilet tissue, which we have been selling for over five years, is categorically of an aloe vera leaf, and we have investigated and confirmed this with our suppliers.”
So that’s how to react if you’re not actually sorry. But what to do if you are sorry?
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Question 2: How Sorry Are We?
Contrition exists on a spectrum. In the real world, “Sorry I’m late” is very different from “Sorry I ran over your dog.” These are two different states of mind, and the victim of each transgression has entirely different expectations.
The same is true in the corporate world. “Sorry your flight was delayed by 10 minutes” is a far cry from “Sorry your plane did an emergency landing and left you with bleeding ears and in the wrong country.”
But organizations frequently get this wrong. Often they over-egg the apology, as Airbnb did in 2011 after a host’s home was vandalized. An Airbnb spokesperson said: “We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up.” Airbnb described the event as a “tragedy.”
Or the company might undercook the apology, as Irish airline Ryanair did after one of its planes had to make an emergency landing so rapidly that passengers’ ears were bleeding when they got off. Ryanair’s response: “Ryanair sincerely apologizes for any inconvenience.”
The problem with over-egging the apology is that using such extreme language (“paralyzed” is pretty extreme) means you have no rhetorical headroom if something worse happens. When an Airbnb guest was murdered in 2017, Airbnb’s statement describing how “deeply saddened and outraged” the company was looked weak in comparison.
The problem with undercooking an apology is that it feels like the organization doesn’t care or is just phoning it in. Imagine you’re one of the customers left with bleeding ears and the airline responsible gives you the same apology it gave a customer who experienced a two-hour delay.
Getting the level of contrition correct is essential to delivering a sincere apology.
Question 3: What Are We Going to Do About It?
So you’ve decided you’re sorry, and you’ve displayed the appropriate amount of contrition. It all means nothing if you don’t get the next step right.
For an apology to be worth anything, it needs to be accompanied by an offer of repair. In our book, professor Cooper and I examine a number of apologies that were defined by what happened afterward. When United Airlines was responsible for the death of a puppy onboard one of its flights, CEO Oscar Munoz committed to an overhaul of labelling processes so that pets in the cabin were not treated as luggage. That’s a tangible commitment to improvement.
Similarly, during the Tylenol poisoning crisis, brand owners Johnson & Johnson went away and invented tamper-proof packaging. The company focused almost exclusively on solving the problem rather than managing its reputation — and consumers appreciated that. When CEO James Burke unveiled the new packaging on American television, he received applause from the audience.
So what’s the bottom line? When facing criticism — no matter how valid or damaging to the organization — ask these three questions before responding. It can be the difference between a minor reputational blip and a full-blown crisis.
Sean O’Meara is coauthor of The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It and the founder and director of Essential Content.
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Sean O’Meara, coauthor of “The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It,” is the founder and director of Essential Content, a communications and public relations consultancy. With more than 15 years of professional experience in corporate communications, O’Meara has worked with organizations including the BBC, Convergys (now Concentrix), and Co-op Bank.