The Four Elements of an Effective Apology

I'm Sorry NoteWhat makes an effective apology—a timeless question.

Before a practitioner ever tries to apply mortification strategies to an organization, he or she should ask himself or herself that question in the context of his or her own life. If a friend did to you what an organization did to its publics, what would you need to hear to issue forgiveness? You might follow that question with several other questions: Is the apology sincere? Do they promise not to do it, again? Do they even know what they did wrong?

There are many theoretical guides to apology in crisis literature. One of my favorites, image restoration theory, comes from Benoit’s 1995 book, Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: A Theory of Image Restoration Strategies. However, for the purposes of this post, I’d like to steer clear of ponderous theory and explain a simple four-step approach to effective apology that I find quite accurate and helpful. It comes from Brigham Young University’s Center for Conflict Resolution.

The center details the following four steps for a genuine, effective apology:

  1. Accept responsibility
  2. Express genuine regret
  3. Make reparation
  4. Make it timely

Now, plenty of people throughout history have apologized without taking care to incorporate all of these elements. However, I would argue the most effective apologies have made use of all four or some variation of the four.

Accept responsibility: No excuses

Clearly, if one is apologizing on behalf of an organization, we will assume the organization has genuinely committed an unfavorable act. Therefore, it is vital that the organization not only generally say “we’re sorry,” but it must cite precisely what it is it did wrong for the apology to take hold.

It is remarkable how many childhood lessons can be applied to organizational crises. As children, if we begrudging apologized with a quick “I’m sorry,” a mother or teacher or guardian would most likely follow-up with a dreaded though not unexpected “for what?” The reason being, that person wanted to make sure the apologist understood what he or she did wrong. Organization-public relationships need this, too, to stay healthy.

The center also makes note that the apologizing party may not excuse themselves. I would agree. An organization should not make excuses in a full apology. Your publics are the only ones who can excuse you.

Express genuine regret: Now, say it like you mean it

We have all been victim to and deliverers of the insincere apology. If you haven’t, count yourself among the lucky—very few things offend as much as an insincere apology.

I would argue an organization’s publics feel similarly. A callous, disingenuous apology will not only fail to repair a damaged relationship but it will most likely damage it further. As I mentioned above, it is offensive and patronizing to deliver an insincere.

Referencing my earlier point, if the organization genuinely believes they are not at fault, do not attempt an apology just because. Publics will know if you are faking it. It needs to be part of an image repair strategy—an apology is not something to just be thrown around casually as a tactic.

Make reparation: Take corrective action

Corrective action is, in and of itself, often considered a strategy separate from apology. However, I appreciate that the center includes it with apology as effective apologies are often accompanied by corrective action.

Essentially, issuing some form of corrective action, even if it is something as simple as an internal investigation, demonstrates sincerity and a willingness to change the bad behavior. Organizations post-apology to “walk the talk.” You don’t want to be known as the “organization that cried apology” by not fixing the offending behavior or policy.

Make it timely: It’s now or never

This is perhaps the major killer of what otherwise could have been a quality apology. Often, organizations that have engaged in bad behavior wait until they are caught, outed and publicly hanged before they finally apologize. The organization may have been as sincere as possible and publicized its corrective actions, but if the media has to hang the organization before it relents, the apology will fall on deaf and angry ears.

A textual apology analysis: JetBlue

JetBlue Plane at the Gate

Image Courtesy: Joe Shlabotnik

In November of 2011, operational issues led to passengers being stranded in a plane on a tarmac in Hartford, CT, for more than 7 hours. While the apology video is no longer available in full, CNN still has a synopsis and a piece of the video available. The apology transcript appears below, as taken from BlueTales, JetBlue Airways’ blog. (Paragraph breaks were added.)

Hi, my name is Rob Maruster and I’m the Chief Operating Officer of JetBlue and I’m coming to you from our System Operations Control Center here in Forest Hills, New York.

As many of you now know, JetBlue had six flights divert to Hartford, Connecticut over the weekend, due to various runway congestion and other operational issues at Newark and JFK airports and we did not deplane those aircraft in our target time allotted. At no point in this weekend was safety ever compromised in any of our decision-making, whether it was our customers or our crewmembers and in fact, safety was their number one concern.

But let’s face it – at JetBlue you count on us for a lot more, and we promise a lot more, and we know we let some of you down over the course of this weekend and for that we are truly sorry.

Going forward we plan to fully participate with the Department of Transportation in cooperating with their investigation into the events over the weekend and we’re also going to conduct an internal evaluation so that we can learn from this event – because at the end of the day you deserve better and we expect better from our crewmembers and our operation.

We can only earn your loyalty and trust one flight at a time and we ask you to give us a second chance. Thank you.

While Maruster does actually say the words “we are truly sorry,” he does try to mitigate some blame by indicating safety was never compromised and name-dropping the airports. That statement however is very much open to interpretation. One could argue, and some have, that people being stranded in a plane for seven hours is compromising safety.

Further, Maruster did not apologize, specifically, for stranding customers for seven hours, which is the major elephant in the…plane.

However, I will hand it to Maruster that he detailed corrective action—full cooperation and an internal review—and the apology did come fairly quickly after the event. Also, JetBlue did follow the apology by issuing refunds to the affected passengers. Finally, sincerity is always open for interpretation. The apology to me would have seemed more sincere without the deflection and justification techniques he attempted to employ.

Perhaps Elton John said it best.

Was JetBlue’s apology good enough? Would you add anything to BYU’s Center for Conflict Resolution’s steps? Did you interpret the steps differently than I did? Can an an apology be effective without all four of those steps? Feel free to comment below.

2 thoughts on “The Four Elements of an Effective Apology

  1. Casey, I absolutely admire this blog entry. Many people in today’s society fear the thought or feelings of being in the wrong and having to apologize. Sometimes it’s hard for people to face their own problems and realize they did something wrong and must accept responsibility or consequences for it. This especially goes hand-in-hand with PR majors. When you become the PR director or spokesperson for a company, things do go wrong and you must apologize and accept responsibility for the mistakes. Mistakes are unintentional, that is why they are called mistakes. I believe JetBlue’s apology was very well thought out, they addressed the problem, noted what they did correct, what they did wrong, and what their actions were for the future. Although JetBlue was able to address their problem, accept responsibility, and express genuine regret, they did not contact the passengers directly to apologize or follow up with them on their personal experience. Safety was taken into consideration, but JetBlue also has to keep in mind customer satisfaction. This story is a perfect example of how express an effective apology and how to improve even more on an effective apology.

    -Jennie Barr

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jenny. I think the most important takeaway from JetBlue’s case is the importance of being deeply other-regarding when crafting an apology.

    The best apologies will make those negatively affected feel heard without them even having to air their grievances–in this case, we’re, of course, referring to the passengers. As I mentioned, without the deflection technique, the sincerity wouldn’t have been as easy to call into question.

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