How to Say “I’m Sorry”

terri cornelius

BY Terri Cornelius

August 2, 2018

Public Relations

The young’uns might have to Google this reference, but boomers will almost certainly remember Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” ad from the ‘80s. The popular tagline was Wendy’s way of calling out competitors for their paper thin hamburger patties. It also became a popular catch phrase when inquiring minds wanted to know the substance or “beef” about something, whether a product, an idea or a promise.

It’s what I often think when I see an official corporate apology. A sincere apology is nice, but where’s the beef? Many companies frantically call communications experts when a crisis strikes or an issue erupts. They want help crafting an apology so they can get back to business. But before we help clients develop a response, we want to know not just what happened, but what the client is doing to rectify the issue or problem.

An apology only works if it is sincere, and to be sincere, there has to be some action or “beef” behind it. An excellent guideline from a PRSA Crisis Communications course I took reinforces our approach at Grisko: What would reasonable people expect your organization to do in a situation? We can quibble about the definition of “reasonable,” but you get the point.

I’m happy to say there have been good recent examples of companies putting some beef behind their apologies. According to the Chicago Sun Times, a Chicago physician made note of a group of well-behaved, young African Americans at Water Tower Place and was later shocked to see them being escorted out by security. She questioned mall management and was told they were loitering and “not engaging in the shopping experience.” The doctor thought it seemed more like racial profiling and followed up with General Growth Properties, the real estate company that owns Water Tower. General Growth reportedly listened to all sides, apologized to the physician and the teens, and promised to review their loitering policies and retrain security. That’s an apology with substance.

Starbucks really raised the bar for crisis response when two African American customers were arrested and evicted from a store for no reason. Along with sincere, effective public apologies, the company closed more than 8,000 stores to educate employees about racial bias. Now that’s some beef behind the apology.

Of course, there are countless corporate examples of apology fails, particularly the potentially inflammatory, “I’m sorry if you were offended by my words or actions.” If your behavior was offensive, go ahead and apologize. Don’t imply that anyone who objected is a snowflake.

There’s this classic: United Airlines harsh treatment of a passenger when they needed his seat. Initially, the airline CEO supported the forced removal of Dr. David Dao and only apologized for having to “re-accommodate” customers due to overbooking. Two days passed before a real apology was issued with a promise to improve booking procedures.

A sincere apology is an essential step in restoring trust after an incident but it’s only effective if there is appropriate action or “beef” to back it up.

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terri cornelius

BY Terri Cornelius

August 2, 2018

Public Relations