“Always seems to me, sorry seems to be the hardest word.” — Bernie Taupin/Elton John
Have you noticed that the simple act of apologizing has evolved into some kind of complex word-tango in which the accused person or company never quite admits fault? It’s been going on for a while now, but we seem to have reached a new crescendo. A company gets caught treating customers poorly, acting unethically, or just making a genuine mistake. They respond by spinning what happened, blaming others, or pointing out that other companies have done the same thing. Then comes the inevitable social media blowback, followed by a prolonged public shaming. And finally, the company is forced to do a full-court mea culpa or risk losing its customers, or worse – its reputation.
An “Upsetting Incident” Becomes a Triple Apology
One of the the worst apologies by a company in recent memory is United Airlines’ public relations disaster last year that began with an overbooked flight. A passenger chosen at random to be bumped from the flight refused to leave the plane, even after being ordered to do so by TSA agents. Things escalated when a passenger shared a video of the man – who turned out to be a doctor – being physically dragged from the plane as other horrified passengers looked on.
United took a full day to issue an apology after the video clip spread like wildfire, and the statement was clearly a “CYA” attempt. Calling the incident “upsetting,” the statement failed to apologize directly to the passenger, and used language that implied the issue was more about the overbooked flight than the manhandling of a paying customer. It even tried to blame the passenger entirely, calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” Needless to say, the statement didn’t go over well with an already outraged public. In fact, United was forced to issue two more apology statements that week, one of them following a press conference in which the passenger’s family went into great detail about the extent of his injuries (the man sustained a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth during the episode). Only then did United CEO Oscar Munoz issue an apology and offered full refunds to everyone who was on the flight. But by then, it was too late. The damage was done. Forbes Magazine called United “the most hated airline in America.” Even a year later, the brand damage remains. While United isn’t at the top of the “most hated” list, it’s in the top 10.
United broke just about every PR rule with their response. First, they waited far too long to issue a statement. Second, the statement was cold, detached, and eager to place blame on the passenger and not the airline itself. It read as though it had been prepared by corporate lawyers, which is always a bad move. Further, United failed to understand that the viral video gave the world a glimpse of what really happened on the plane: a visual archive of the passenger’s rough treatment and how the other passengers felt about what happened. Their response needed to address that.
Getting it Right: Starbucks CEO Says Sorry and Takes Action
Now let’s look at last month’s viral video of two African-American men being arrested for trespassing in a Philadelphia Starbucks. The men were removed by police for not ordering anything while they waited for a client to meet them. Customers recorded the incident and spoke out on the men’s behalf, saying they did nothing wrong and weren’t causing any trouble. Rather than point fingers, throw the manager of the store under the bus, or try to deny culpability, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson quickly issued a full apology. He called the incident “reprehensible,” offered to meet personally with the two men, and said that Starbucks will close 8,000 of its stores across the country to conduct racial bias and sensitivity training – a move that will cost the company $16 million in lost revenue.
Issuing a timely, sincere apology that doesn’t come across as a deflection of blame is the most important part of a corporate apology. Actually use the words, “I’m sorry.” In a world full of non-apologies and weak justifications for bad behavior, saying those words is a welcome breath of fresh air. But issuing the apology isn’t enough. It has to be followed by some kind of action to show that your company truly is sorry and is making every effort to prevent the error from happening again. Starbucks CEO Johnson showed his humanity, placing people over profits.
In today’s digital world, a viral video of businesses behaving badly can pop up at any time. Leaders should invest in consistent employee training and fair customer policies to minimize the likelihood that your company is one of them. However, you should also prepare for the day you do find your company at the center of controversy. And “Sorry” should be at the heart of that response.