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How Not to Say Sorry

12th November 2018

How not to say sorry
How not to say sorry

Nick Clegg newly installed at Facebook was an internet sensation, can you remember when and why? He was the biggest thing in the digital sphere for a week or so. It was an apology and a really embarrassing one. It was his U-turn on tuition fees and he was every so s-s—s-s-orreeee, so sorreee, sorreeee, sorreeee” He opined. After two days his a-p-o-l-o-g-i-e-e-e-e-e, we were all feeling a bit sorry. If you’re interested you can watch the offending apology here…

It’s an English thing to say sorry before you have done anything wrong. “Sorry to bother you…”

When to say sorry

Someone said to me once, change the word Sorry for the word Thank you. You will be surprised the change to your life.

Sorry is often used as a Don’t be angry. I used to say to my wife,

“You know how much you love me, I’m sorry but….”

It is never a good way to start a conversation with someone.

A great technique to get you off the back foot and on the front foot is instead of

“I’m sorry, I don’t have this for you yet”

swap it for

“You’ll have it Friday”

This puts you back in control.

Talk about how you would like to be, what’s going to happen

Apologise but use other words rather than the word sorry. It tends to bring the worst out of people, both parties.

Never, ever apologise for bothering people,

“Sorry, is now a good time?”

It drops you several levels and people will tell you if they are busy.

Owning the apology

When in the Workplace recognise when you’ve come up short. At Formation we had an issue on a project in London where a new supplier decided to lose interest on a locker room. We could blame them or the weather or anything frankly but we owned it, told the client we would take it from here and got it done. Late, yes but without the traditional finger pointing.

A typical issue when things go wrong apart from a stream of sorrys is emotion. Strip out emotion, use rational thinking – avoid. “I’m sorry but…” “you’re not going like this” it frustrates people.

Tell them how it will be.

Companies get it wrong more than right.

KFC have earned some brownie points with their ‘we’ve been a bit rubbish’ advertising. I saw it in the Metro today. They realise that the unspoken truth, that their chips are rubbish is now in the public domain. So two options, ignore it or face it off. They, quite rightly, have said our chips are pants but we are going to do the following to make them the best. They used the posts from people to prove the point that they realised their chips weren’t great. Brilliant PR and great outcome.

Unfortunately, KFC are unusual. Most firms find it difficult to say sorry. They will generally take the worst line of attack, that they are sorry that you feel that way. WHAT !!!

A challenger bank I know well had a very public customer screw-up relating to fraud. The CEO was in front of the cameras the same day, saying I will get to the bottom of the problem. No customer will be out of pocket and we will fix this so it never happens again. It was powerful stuff and it completely defused the situation.

Compare that to a more recent and arguably less problematic issue for another new bank. This created similar customer impact but they hadn’t read the first bank’s script. This bank let the media take control of the communication, it dragged on for days and then weeks, on the news and then daytime TV, it never stopped.  The CEO ultimately paid the price with his job. Lots of customers are still out of pocket. However, the bigger issue is reputational and that takes a long time to win back if ever.

Never apologise but sound like you don’t mean it

Earlier this year, Pepsi unveiled a tone-deaf ad featuring Kendall Jenner joining a protest and suggesting that a can of Pepsi could solve the world’s problems. What it really did was trivialise legitimate protest movements like #metoo.  Now, to be clear, there were serious problems with Pepsi’s response. But to the company’s credit, it did pull the ad in less than a day.

Own the mistake and don’t get defensive. Here’s where Pepsi messed up. While admitting that the ad clearly missed the mark, Pepsi tried to justify the campaign, saying it was intended to be a global message of something or other. It also apologised for putting Jenner in a bad light NOT the offensive nature of the ad.

Say you will do better in the future

I like the recent story of CBS when long-time broadcaster Charlie Rose was fired in November amid charges of unwanted sexual advances toward women. Their News President, David Rhodes stated in clear terms their principles that had been violated by Rose.

“Despite Charlie’s contribution to our news division, there is absolutely nothing more important, in this or any organisation, than ensuring a safe, professional workplace”.

Clear, concise and unequivocal, love it.

Don’t Confuse

Don’t make a public apology while at the same time sharing a contradictory version of events with employees. That would ring hollow with employees and it’s guaranteed to be leaked externally. Companies no longer have complete control over their own PR.

PwC deserves an Oscar award for best apology for its statement after the Academy Awards announced the wrong winner for best film.

PwC stated:

“We sincerely apologise to “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred. We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.”

PWC’s apology is short, acknowledges who was hurt, explains what happened and explains what will happen next.

They say it’s hard to say you’re sorry, I say it really shouldn’t be. Try it sometime when you should and mean it and don’t say it all time when you don’t need to.