New Book Lays Out Steps for an Effective Apology

Thom Weidlich 02.09.23


Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, who run the SorryWatch website that chronicles public apologies, have a new book out that’s getting a fair amount of attention. While it focuses mostly on interpersonal apologies, it contains lessons for corporate-crisis mea culpas, too.

The centerpiece and most helpful part of the book, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, is its “six simple steps” for an effective apology. Lots of writers have bestowed us with their recipes for atoning properly. Ingall and McCarthy’s offering is particularly good (we have one quibble). Here’s the low-down, emphasizing how their approach can aid corporate communicators.

1. Say you’re sorry.

Actually say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Don’t skirt the apology itself. Don’t use “I regret.” Say you’re sorry to the people harmed. As the authors point out, too many people apologize to their institutions (company, Major League Baseball team) rather than to the wronged person or group. Companies are often focused on their shareholders, not their customers or the public. And yet, a badly done apology can sink a stock.

Companies often have to keep apologizing because their initial efforts evade responsibility. “When they [businesses] finally apologize, it’s bad, because they’ve already tried a cover-up as a strategy,” Ingall and McCarthy write.

2. For what you did.

Name the wrong thing you did. Too often corporate apologies refer vaguely to “the recent incident,” “the allegations” or even “it.” One exception: If the crisis is about a racist, sexist or otherwise toxic statement, don’t repeat the offending language.

Don’t apologize for how you made people feel, but for your actions. And it’s certainly not about your feelings — it’s not about you. Don’t say “we feel responsible,” but “we are responsible.”

Don’t make excuses. Don’t say you’re taking responsibility and then blame someone else. Another famous culprit here is the passive voice: Not “mistakes were made,” but “we made mistakes.”

3. Show you understand why it was bad.

Don’t write the incident off as no big deal. Even if the consequences weren’t dire, they could have been — and you should understand why people are angry.

4. Only explain if you need to; don’t make excuses.

If possible, explain why what happened happened: the facility fire, the botched product. The recipients of your apology may even be understanding.

5. Say why it won’t happen again.

The company should explain the actions it’s taking to try to prevent the crisis from happening again: providing more training, updating systems, firing someone. But herein lies our quibble: We think a company should say it will do everything in its power to not repeat the behavior, rather than that it definitely won’t happen again. You can’t guarantee it won’t recur — and if it does, it’s not a great look. Are you certain your 2-million-employee company won’t hire someone who engages in sexual harassment?

6. Offer to make up for it.

Try to concretely make amends. Make the victim financially whole, donate to a related charity. But, interestingly, Ingall and McCarthy cite a 2009 U.K. study showing consumers prefer a company apology to financial compensation that doesn’t include an apology. “Generally speaking, the best business apologies involve both words and actions; one or the other alone isn’t enough,” they write.

Finally, the authors offer a point “six and a half”: Listen to the response from the recipient of the apology. The opportunities in the corporate context may be limited, but they do exist. For example, the setting for the apology may be an employee all-hands meeting or a public town hall. Let people respond to your apology and listen to them. You might learn something.

Image Credit: Simon & Schuster

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