Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Take some wishy-washy words. Add a line about causing offence. Sprinkle a hashtag. Hold the sympathy. Leave to simmer, then turn up the heat online for 15 minutes.

There you have the recipe for a half-baked public apology, cooked up by a publicist on behalf of a shamed celebrity. It’s a technique we’ve been seeing a lot of lately and, if social media is anything to go by, one we’re hot at spotting.

We get it though. Writing an apology (whether public or private) can be a minefield. Sometimes it’s because you’re afraid of looking weak. Or getting into hot water by admitting you’re in the wrong. But when sincerity is missing from your apology, it stands out at 40 paces.

So what’s our recipe for an effective apology?

Having a business is a lot like being famous. You’re judged on what you say and how you say it. A poor choice of words and your reputation can be left in tatters. But get it right and you’ll get good press, plenty of reassured customers and perhaps a few new ones for your efforts.

Whether you’re responding to a public outcry (for example, Ryanair’s cancelled flights last year) or a private letter, these must-have ingredients will help you avoid making a dog’s dinner of it.

An armful of active language

It’s an obvious one, but it shows you’re owning your apology. Sometimes you’ll see statements like ‘Mistakes were made’. By whom? We use the ‘by monkeys’ test. If you can add ‘by monkeys’ to the end of the sentence and it makes sense, it’s passive. Rejig the subjects and objects, and use verbs instead of nouns to turn what you’re saying active.

A healthy splash of sincerity

We see a lot of ‘We’d like to apologise for any inconvenience’, and we’d ban it if we could. It comes from the good old days of formal business language but in 2018, it comes across as copied and pasted from the user manual.

It’s also meaningless: the ‘we’d like to’ smacks of ‘we’re only doing this because we’ve been told we should’. The ‘apologise’ is a stuffy substitute for sorry, and ‘inconvenience’ is just plain rude. If you know what the fallout was (a missed wedding from a cancelled flight, a delay in opening a new account, a tree on the track) say it. It shows you’re listening and you care.

A pinch of personality

Every brand has a tone of voice. (Yours doesn’t? Call us.) It puts your brand’s aims and aspirations into words that everyone can get behind. It’s a big part of your end-to-end brand experience and so while you might think it’s only for the fun things (like an ad campaign or your website), it’s just as important ­– or even more so – for the more sensitive or serious stuff.

Because that’s where people really pay attention. By injecting a bit of your personality, you’re showing that your brand’s not run by robots reeling out the tired, formulaic phrases. And that you believe in talking to your customers in the same way, wherever they are in the journey.

A dash of humility

Being able to show that you’re learning works wonders. If you’re changing the way you do things, rethinking your strategy or simply refunding a payment, let your reader know. They’ll appreciate your honesty and openness (and the impact on their bank balance), and see your brand as more human than humdrum.

And a sprinkle of ‘sorry’

The all-important ingredient. Put it in first or leave it to the end. But put it in unsullied, untweaked and unfettered. No ifs, no buts, just sorry.

If you’re a company (or a celebrity) and your apologies need whipping into shape, get in touch.

comments powered by Disqus