My bad?

Petrol pump with 'sorry out of service' cover

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Watching the online meltdown of Amy’s Baking Company (after owners Amy and Samy proved too much of a kitchen nightmare even for Gordon Ramsey) was a vivid (and, ok, entertaining) reminder that saying sorry is rarely easy for us humans. And while Amy and Samy’s apparently enraged, hysterical rebuttals only garnered more criticism (they’ve since claimed their various accounts were hacked), it does beg the question of whether companies are right to be wary of ever using the ‘S’ word in the melting pot of social media.

Many companies (and their PR advisers) are understandably nervous of apologising as a social media crisis management tactic, particularly when Chinese Whispers and Schadenfreude can combine to spread a damaging line to thousands of your customers in minutes.

Yet, a good corporate apology – like a heartfelt personal apology – can be a powerful relationship healer. As in real life, it needs to be sincere, unambiguous and, often, the precursor to change: “We’re really sorry X happened: we’ll be doing Y to make sure it never happens again”.

Saying sorry doesn’t have to open up your organisation to legal claims of corporate negligence, either. Section 2 of the UK’s Compensation Act 2006, for example, states that an apology or offer or redress is not, in itself, tantamount to an admission of liability. Apple’s recent carefully worded apology to its customers in China, for example, merely suggested the reality of its attitude to customer feedback had been mis-communicated. Whether that’s likely to infuriate rather than placate its customers is another question. But often, the reputational risk of not apologising can outweigh any potential legal liability.

Like any good personal apology, timeliness is critical. Deliver it even an hour too late on Twitter and you risk the perception that your hand has been forced. Get in quickly and you can often nip criticism in the bud, diffusing a potential crisis before it becomes one.

Saying sorry can also give you the element of surprise. As Yes, Minister’s Jim Hacker explains to Sir Humphrey after admitting guilt to a journalist (Sir H: “You said what?!?“): “Yep. Took the wind right out of his sails…”

So while ‘stupid, rotten apologies’ are to be rightly avoided, perhaps we should be less afraid to say we got it wrong.

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