How to (and how not to) effectively issue a company apology

Apologizing as a company is hard; you have to effectively say sorry to customers, stakeholders, employees, etc. Our PR Executive Erica shares some tips for doing it right.


We all fuck up, and when we do, the process of correcting our mistake most often starts with an apology.

As an individual, a good apology is pretty simple: we say sorry, maybe outline steps to avoid making the same mistake again, and move on. But for a company, apologies are more difficult. If a company messes up, its executives aren’t able to apologize in a catered way to a single person—they have to attempt to adequately communicate their remorse and plan for improvement to several different kinds of people including clients/customers, investors and stakeholders, and employees.

In March, news broke that Cambridge Analytica, a data mining/consulting firm, had collected personal information from 87 million Facebook users without permission and then reportedly used it for a number of highly unethical purposes (including to influence voters in the 2016 election of Donald Trump). People were understandably furious. Shouldn’t Facebook have known that developers were illegally collecting its users’ data?

In less than 48 hours, the company’s value decreased by $35B USD and Mark Zuckerberg’s personal net worth dropped $9B USD (don’t worry too much though, both Facebook and Zuckerberg are still worth billions). Zuckerberg was lambasted particularly hard because after the news broke he seemed to drop off the face of the earth for five days. It took Zuck FIVE DAYS to respond on behalf of Facebook, and when he did, his apology was awful. I’ve annotated parts of his statement below to shed light on what not to do if you’re apologizing on behalf of a company.

 

This is a very cold open, especially since it was the first time Zuck commented publicly about the news.

He calls it an “update,” so it sounds professional but that also makes it feel extremely impersonal, a mistake given the large number of people this personally impacted.

 


He should have started here. This line is great because he’s directly addressing the people impacted and (even though he doesn’t outright apologize) he sounds apologetic.

The second line should have been: “I’m sorry for this breach of your trust. I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and I’m sorry that we didn’t do more to protect your data in the first place.”

 


-1 for Zuck.

We’re getting into the body of this statement and he still hasn’t apologized. He should have said sorry right away.

 


Purely from a PR perspective, this paragraph is interesting because it shows that Facebook knew about the data breach years ago.

This opens Zuck up to additional questions/criticisms around why he didn’t do more at the time. It’s also another opportunity to apologize that he doesn’t take.

 


Theoretically, this timeline could have been great, but Zuck uses it as an opportunity to place all the blame on Cambridge Analytica and outline the things Facebook has done right, when the point of this statement is that Facebook clearly did something wrong. It would have been better/more meaningful if he also used it as an opportunity to address Facebook’s shortcomings.

 


Replace: “We need to fix that.” with “We’re sorry we didn’t do more to protect it, and we’re working tirelessly to develop solutions that …”

 



The steps that follow are great.

This shows that Facebook is committed (as, of course, it should be) to making sure this never happens again, and it shows that Zuck is taking responsibility for this ongoing investigation.

 


+1 for Zuck taking direct responsibility here.

This could have come earlier in the statement, but at least he includes it. As the CEO and ultimate decision-maker, it’s important for him to own up to company-wide mistakes like this.

Again, this is a run-around way of apologizing. It suggests he’s sorry, but he still doesn’t outright say it.

 


 

Should you ever need to issue a company apology, don’t be Mark Zuckerberg. I get it, crafting effective apologies is hard, but the tips outlined below should help you get started.

1. Be honest and own up to the mistake publicly.

Humans are prone to error, and since businesses are run by humans, its expected that they’ll sometimes make mistakes too. When this happens, be honestthe alternative is hiding your mistake, but this is much worse for your brand’s reputation if someone finds out, and trust me, someone will find out.

A great example of a business that did this well is Maple Leaf Foods. When the company had a listeriosis outbreak in 2008, they were quick to institute a voluntary product recall before the outbreak was linked to their plant, they acknowledged their responsibility in a press conference and media interviews once the link was confirmed, and they took out ads apologizing on TV and in newspapers. While nothing could change the fact that their plant led to customers’ deaths, their response is still hailed as one of the best company crisis responses, in large part due to their upfront and honest approach.

2. Apologize quickly.

Own up to your mistakes as soon as possible. In the case of Maple Leaf Foods, the company started reparations before the listeriosis outbreak was even linked to their plant. This showed that they were highly concerned about customer safety and were actively working to remedy the situation. Facebook did the opposite. The company had been aware of the data breach for years before the story finally broke this winter, and when it did, they waited days to respond. This not only reflected poorly on their brand and led to massive financial losses, it also enraged users (the backbone of the social media site).

3. Have the apology come from the CEO (or another top decision-maker).

Company apologies, like individual apologies, should always come from the person who is ultimately responsible. The Maple Leaf Foods apologies came from the company’s CEO, Michael McCain. In the case of Facebook, all statements and apologies came from Zuckerberg.

4. Explain what went wrong.

As a company, you can’t just say sorry for your mistakes and expect everyone to move on. People want to understand exactly what went wrong and how, so explain, and try to be as specific as possible.

5. Include a plan for remedying the situation.

This is one thing Zuck did right in his initial statement after the Cambridge Analytica news broke. If you’ve made a mistake, show that you’re dedicated to making sure it never happens again. A simple apology is nice, but showing customers and stakeholders that you’re taking actionable steps to avoid similar mistakes in the future is better.