Customer experience

Writing wrongs: The power of the apology

By May 3, 2017 No Comments

It’s not easy to admit to being in the wrong. You’d think that, with a mere two syllables, uttering the word sorry would cause few people any strain. But, as Elton John so accurately identified in his 1976 masterpiece, for many it seems to be the hardest word.

Imperfection is entirely human

At one time or another we’ve all been guilty of committing an act that, in hindsight, we would happily eradicate from our lives. You don’t get to be an adult without going through a few moments you’d rather forget; that’s just how life works. Mistakes happen, and learning from them is a crucial part of becoming a wiser, more rounded individual.

Of course, it’s one thing to acknowledge a mistake to oneself, but quite another to openly confess it to other people. Conceding fault or owning up to a blunder can be embarrassing, uncomfortable and, in some cases, distressing.

At one time or another we’ve all been guilty of committing an act that, in hindsight, we would happily eradicate from our lives

Though doing so can be often be awkward, saying sorry when an apology is genuinely warranted is an act of significance. Regardless of the circumstances that have deemed it necessary, declaring regret or remorse is a means of showing respect and empathy for the person, or persons, that have been wronged.

Saying sorry when an apology is genuinely warranted is an act of significance

And it is for these reasons that companies, as well as people, must embrace transparency and admit fallibility when something goes wrong. Companies are run by human beings, all of whom are capable of miscalculation and mix-ups. Even with the best of intentions, inaccuracies can, and will, occur.

Oversights and errors

Sometimes, mistakes can find their way into a finished article, no matter how thoroughly it has been edited and proofread. Every content producer has been there, and I’m no exception.

During my very first stint as a journalist at a regional newspaper, I managed to spell a woman’s surname wrong. In retrospect, I can see it for what it truly was; an innocent mistake made by a nervous, and somewhat naïve, young writer. But, back then, it felt like the end of the world. It was the first time I’d ever scored a byline, and I couldn’t have been more disheartened when, on the day of the newspaper’s publication, the misnamed woman called up and made my editor aware of the cock-up.

Despite the associated humiliation and the feeling of having let everyone down, the situation turned out to be an incredibly valuable tutorial in not only dealing with setbacks, but also in the value of assessing a situation from another person’s perspective.

It’s very easy to become transfixed on an error and blow its significance out of all proportion

The editor issued an apology over the phone, but I was determined to face up to the error and say sorry in person. I bought a bunch of flowers, headed round to the lady’s house, and we had a cup of tea and a chat in her kitchen. The reason that brought me there was forgotten almost immediately, and we nattered on for a good half an hour about gardening, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and her love of Wimbledon.

I returned to the office with a smile on my face. I’d seen first-hand the real value of saying sorry and truly meaning it. I realised that not only does the recipient sincerely appreciate an authentic apology, but the act of issuing one can forge a bond of trust and mutual respect.

It’s very easy to become transfixed on an error and blow its significance out of all proportion. And, while sometimes it may seem tempting to ignore a gaffe and pray that it disappears without anyone noticing, rarely is this the most apposite response. Nobody is immune to the odd flub, and, while the magnitude and importance of an error will vary from situation to situation, reacting in a way that is sincere and earnest is nearly always the most beneficial course of action.

However, if you are a business owner or a spokesperson for your company, there may come a time when you find yourself forced to issue a response of some kind on behalf of an entire organisation. Should this scenario arise, it’s even more essential that you take time to carefully prepare and hone your reaction.

When to say sorry

If a company values its customers – as they all should – then openly and honestly recognising mistakes, and suitably addressing the reasons that led to said mistake’s occurrence, is vital.

Remember when Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phones starting catching fire? Or when Snapchat fell victim to a phishing scam that ended up revealing payroll information about some of the company’s employees? Or the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015?

In each of these instances, the need for the culpable party to say sorry was a no-brainer; they were clearly at fault, and any failure to accept responsibility would have caused them even greater reputational damage.

Sometimes, however, knowing whether or not to say sorry is far less straightforward.

There can be a very thin line between what some will deem harmlessly provocative, and what others will regard as offensive. Marketers, advertisers and content creators are tasked with ensuring that which they produce stands out from the crowd, and one of the most effective ways of achieving this is to craft something that is somewhat confrontational. Attempting to engage the consumer without disillusioning them is a strategy many companies attempt, but one that is not without its risks.

There can be a very thin line between what some will deem harmlessly provocative, and what others will regard as offensive

In early 2016, Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) ran an advertising campaign which suggested that its burgers were so good, even vegetarians would not be able to resist them. I remember seeing this at the time and thinking that it was quite a nice angle. I’m vegetarian myself, and didn’t for a second consider it anything more than a concept aimed at grabbing people’s attention.

However, GBK was inundated with complaints from furious veggies, with many suggesting that the burger chain’s posters ‘alienated’ customers that had made a conscious decision to refrain from consuming meat. In fact, The Advertising Standards Authority revealed that it received close to 200 complains about the ads, which prompted GBK to issue the following apology:

“Our intentions were light-hearted and not meant to cause any offence, but clearly we have, and for that we apologise. While we’ve served beef at the core of our menu since 2001, we’ve always catered well to the veggies out there, and always will.”

In this wake of this statement, Jasmijn de Boo, the chief executive of The Vegan Society, lambasted GBK, calling the company ‘totally out of touch’, before adding that the incident was a ‘wonderful example of the power of people to change things when they spot an injustice’.

Whether the advertisements offend you or not, it’s clear to see that this is not a cut and dried case. While some individuals considered the campaign to be disrespectful, others clearly didn’t see it that way. It’s no secret that some people are far more easily offended than others. A situation that would see one individual shrug their shoulders and carry on with their day, could lead another to become irate, incensed and incredibly angry.

It can be difficult to accurately anticipate how sensitive people will be to a design, idea or piece of writing, and it can be even trickier to know when an apology is compulsory. However, in the world of content creation, this is something you’ll likely be forced to confront at some point.

It can be difficult to accurately anticipate how sensitive people will be to a design, idea or piece of writing

Using your own judgement and standing firm, both during a concept’s inception and following its publication, is essential. If you don’t believe an apology is necessary, then don’t give one. But be aware that you might be called upon to defend your stance, and may have to fight for what you believe is right. There is very little, if anything, that will not be considered offensive by someone, but that does not mean you must bow down and accept wrongdoing if you do not believe it’s justified.

In conclusion

The long-term damage of appearing dishonest far outweighs the short-term unease associated with holding one’s hands up and taking ownership of a genuine slip-up. Saying sorry is something we’ve all had to do before, and will all likely have to do again.

However, sometimes you must be willing to stand up for your ideas, beliefs and output. If companies or individuals meekly apologise every time someone decides they are affronted, then challenging and provoking content could conceivably become a thing of the past.

Knowing when to accept blame is not always simple, but being prepared to say sorry when the situation calls for it is a fundamental necessity, regardless of whether speaking on behalf of yourself, or as the voice of an organisation.

Sorry needn’t be the hardest word.

About Southerly

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