Don’t Blow the Apology

You screwed up. Don’t blow your apology, too

You didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did. You (or your company) did something the wrong way or failed to do something you should have. What’s your next step?

If you’re a big organization, you’re probably going to screw up some more. You’ll make some kind of public apology, but it’s likely to be so heavily massaged or passive-aggressive you’ll get confronted about it and find yourself being forced to take a second whack at the apology tree.

I see it again and again, as prominent individuals and company leaders publicly respond to situations where they either did something wrong or were perceived as doing wrong. Instead of simply owning up to the matter and expressing regret, their graceless approaches only make bad situations worse. And in this environment of viral social media, you can’t afford to do that.

A classic example of screwed-up apologies happened some time back, when an airline demanded a seated passenger give up that seat to make room for an employee. Passengers recorded the horrifying images of crew members dragging the senior man down the plane’s aisle.

The airline’s PR team was first to respond. They apologized for overbooking the flight, although subsequent investigations discovered that it hadn’t actually been overbooked. Curiously, their “apology” failed to mention the passenger or his treatment at their employees’ hands.

As the media frenzy spiraled, the airline’s CEO issued a public statement calling the incident “upsetting” and apologizing for having to “re-accommodate these customers.” He followed it with a private statement to employees absolving them, suggesting the passenger had been “disruptive and belligerent,” although that reportedly wasn’t the case. How quickly do you think his second statement was leaked?

Next day, the CEO issued another statement. This time, he finally apologized to the passenger and others on the flight, taking “full responsibility” and noting, “I promise you we will do better.” It should have ended there, but the airline apparently decided it hadn’t screwed up enough. Next, they offered to refund the fares of everyone on the flight, placing the story back in the headlines.

The following day, the airline took yet another crack at the situation, claiming the CEO had personally reached out to the physically deplaned passenger. Nice gesture, but apparently nobody in the airline’s PR machine realized the media likes to verify these things. The passenger’s family and attorney quickly reported no such communication with the CEO.

There’s no question the incident and videos were destined to be a national story. But had the airline sincerely and properly apologized in the first place, it would have been a story for just one news cycle. Their bungling and prevarication kept the story in the headlines for more than a week and created lasting damage to the airline’s reputation.

Hey, nobody likes to apologize. Nobody likes to admit to being wrong. But being able to do so genuinely and effectively is a critical component of integrity, whether it’s an individual or a company.

Sadly, so many corporate apologies are anything but genuine or effective. They take the form of weasel-worded statements generated by attorneys, PR types, or committees. Those statements are carefully constructed to create the illusion that an apology has been made, or to shift the blame to the aggrieved parties. “If the passenger had simply cooperated with the request to vacate his seat, this situation wouldn’t have happened.” Right.

Is there an artful way to apologize? Absolutely. Follow these four points and you’ll be well on the way:

Own up to it.

Nothing deflects criticism quite like candor. So admit what happened in simple terms. Explain how you’ll remedy it or keep it from happening in the future. Speak confidently and resist the urge to criticize others. If you’re the CEO and the problem was caused by line employees, don’t shift the blame. Be a real leader and accept full responsibility. After all, you’re only too happy to take praise for employee-fueled successes.

Apologize quickly and simply.

Don’t try to craft the perfect apology, because your delay will only give your critics more fodder. When you speak first, you control the message. Keeping the language of your apology simple and straightforward increases the likelihood it will be perceived as genuine, and makes it more likely anyone who tries pick away at it or find contradictions in your words will seem mean-spirited.

Never exaggerate.

Yes, you’ve had a terrible day. But it wasn’t on the scale of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. So don’t try to make it bigger than it really was, and don’t bother going into great detail about every internal element. Stay focused on the big picture and keep your explanation brief.

Be done with it.

People have short memories. They’re focused on you today, but they’ll quickly move to the next shiny object unless you keep bringing it up. If a reporter or a critic asks you about the situation in the days and weeks to come, it’s perfectly okay to say that you’ve made your apology and you’ve taken steps to keep it from happening again. You’re under no obligation to say more, and you don’t have to be sorry about that.



Scott Flood established Scott Flood Writing in 1995 after 13 years with advertising agencies in Chicago and Indianapolis. The Chicago native is a frequent author on copywriting and marketing topics for business publications, has authored two books of local interest, Books for All the People: the First Century of the Plainfield-Guilford Township Public Library and A Guide to the Enabling Garden, and is also the author of 100 Years: The Story of the Western States Machine Company.

Scott has been a frequent contributor to the Digital Toolbox.  Check out his other articles and interview on More than a Few Words.

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