J.C. Penney made a colossal mistake when they changed their pricing structure, alienating their bargain-hunting base. The bungled strategy led to the departure of Penney’s CEO, Ron Johnson, but before he left, he did one thing right: apologized.
Mistakes are part of doing business. Some mistakes result in annoyance (Apple Maps), others outrage (Instagram’s terms of service change). In some cases, a mistake becomes an international incident, like the Asiana airline crash in San Francisco that killed three people and injured dozens.
Heartfelt apologies work. Most customers and clients are willing to forgive mistakes, provided they feel heard and the problem is resolved. Why do some companies refuse to say “sorry,” or issue a watered-down statement so devoid of emotion as to make the situation worse?
In a word: lawsuits. Businesses fear that a simple “I’m sorry” will subject them to liability in a theoretical future lawsuit brought by the people they’ve ticked off. A handful of states have statutes protecting apologies, making them inadmissible as evidence in civil lawsuits. Many more states protect physicians’ apologies from being used against them in malpractice suits, although the statutes vary broadly in terms of what, exactly, a physician can say.
Statements of apology may still come into evidence during a lawsuit, depending on the jurisdiction in which you’re sued, but it’s unlikely that an apology alone would be enough evidence for you to be held liable.
The larger concern is that admitting liability might invalidate a company’s liability coverage. Many insurance policies deny coverage for claims if the insured admits or assumes liability without the insurance company’s express permission.
Clearly, money’s on the line, but some businesses don’t consider the amount of money they’ll lose if customers leave and don’t come back. In addition, apologies—when sincere and prompt—can sometimes resolve problems before litigation ensues.
From a legal standpoint, you were either responsible for the snafu or you weren’t. Either way, if your customers are unhappy because of you, you should apologize, at least for that fact alone. A simple “we’re very sorry for your frustration and inconvenience” is unlikely to impact your company’s prospects in a lawsuit, and a sincere apology might forestall the lawsuit altogether.
Something else to consider: everyone knows about your mistake anyway. Everyone with a smartphone has become a publisher, and mistakes are documented by multiple sources, sometimes going viral in minutes. These screw-ups live forever on the Internet. There are even websites dedicated to analyzing public statements of apology, judging who got it right and who made things worse.
This leads many to companies delay responding during a PR crisis, vetting draft after carefully honed draft before issuing any public statement. While they’re weighing word choices, people who’ve heard the story—many of whom are not even customers—become angrier and more vocal in their criticism.
But “getting it right” is an elusive prospect when it comes to public apologies. Despite scientific studies on the subject, opinions are sure to vary.
Some ways to improve your odds of a successful apology include having the right person apologize (most likely an executive or employee, as opposed to a PR professional). A polished statement from your publicist can seem glib and lack authenticity.
Also, be ready to actively engage in the conversation once people start responding to your statement. If you simply issue a statement and disappear, people will likely feel as though your apology wasn’t genuine.
Apologize, well and promptly, but stay current on the legal status of apologies in your state, as well as the terms of your insurance.
Otherwise, you really will be sorry.