Mea Culpa: Social Media Apology Do’s and Don’ts

When DiGiorno tweeted, “You had pizza. #WhyIStayed,” Twitter lit up with criticism of the brand.

The hashtag “WhyIStayed” is associated with domestic violence.

In response to the firestorm its tweet unleashed, DiGiorno peppered its Twitter feed with apology after apology, all of them essentially like this: “A million apologies. Did not read what the hashtag was about before posting.”

The furor around DiGiorno’s gaffe and the company’s extensive blast of apologies demonstrate how vital it is to hone one’s ability to use social media to apologize for mistakes.

“Social media apologies are important, as brands don’t want to seem impervious to their mistakes,” said Jarone Ashkenazi, account manager with PMBC Group.

“When a mistake arises, the issue is amplified online, so brands must come up with a dignified and appropriate apology for mistakes they make,” he told CRM Buyer. “Furthermore, a social media apology is important because it will protect the brand’s image.”

Only Human

Apologies are a central part of human communication. They smooth over wrongs and facilitate the kinds of changes that are necessary to keep relationships functional — whether those relationships are personal or professional. In many ways, personal and professional apologies can be similar.

“A good apology says what it was you did wrong,” said Susan McCarthy, cofounder of SorryWatch.

“It doesn’t’ say ‘I’m sorry for those unfortunate events.’ It doesn’t dance around, saying the circumstances are regrettable. Maybe there should be an explanation, but there shouldn’t be a long explanation about how the company is a victim,” she told CRM Buyer. “You should say how it won’t happen again.”

SorryWatch — a website dedicated to documenting public apologies — was started by McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall to track both effective and ineffective apologies.

“We noticed how many bad apologies there are out there, and we saw how unsatisfied they left people,” explained McCarthy.

Businesses, like people, sometimes can fail to see the importance of issuing an apology — or even that they’ve done something wrong.

“People are just so convinced that their heart is good that they don’t want to look at their actions to see if they could have done something obnoxious or cruel,” said McCarthy. “Everybody — corporations and individuals — likes to save face. It’s a deep thing in people, and we extend it to governments and companies. It’s interesting how people who have not thought about this instinctively go to the old toolbox of blaming others.”

A good apology, however, can make all the difference in the world — and it also can bring back business that might have been lost.

“It can be good for business — and not to apologize can definitely be bad,” said McCarthy.

“A really good apology can completely repair a mistake. People would prefer to deal with businesses that seem grown-up, that seem responsive,” she pointed out. “A company that apologizes well and fixes the problem is probably a company that if you buy something that breaks, they’ll fix it, or if a salesperson is rude to you, they’ll make it up to you. It increases trust.”

The Limits of Apologies

How much apologizing, however, is too much? At what point do apologies begin to sound cheap or inauthentic?

“There is a strong case to be made that brands are apologizing too much, since sending a tweet or posting something on Facebook is so easy to do,” said PMBC Group’s Ashkenazi. “If a company is apologizing all the time, would you feel confident that the brand will provide you a quality experience?”

How many apologies are too many is something for each company to decide, and corporate stances on apologies can differ dramatically.

“Companies differ on when to apologize,” said Ashkenazi. “Some take the stance that no mistake is too small, and others take the stance that [they should respond] only when the problem gets out to the public domain.”

Businesses also need to decide where to make an apology.

Make the apology in the same place that the original mistake was made, McCarthy recommended. So if a mistake was made on Twitter, the apology should be made there as well.

It could be most effective to post an apology on a company’s own website, though.

“Have an apology on your own website, and then link to it from social media,” said Neal Schaffer, president and founder of Maximize Your Social.

“You can also use video. Video has proven to be an effective way of saying hey, we made a mistake, and we fixed it,” he told CRM Buyer.

Make It Real

The best social media apology policy is a consistent one, suggested Ashkenazi. “Find a good medium and make sure to use that strategy for every decision. Don’t waver back and forth.”

However an apology is made, businesses must make sure it’s honest and heartfelt.

“Negative responses about your brand can cause anger. Take a step back, a deep breath, and then approach the situation in both a professional and a sympathetic manner,” advised Jess Knight, marketing manager with newBrandAnalytics.

“No matter what you say,” she told CRM Buyer, “if your apology does not sound authentic, it’s as if you didn’t apologize at all.”

Freelance writer Vivian Wagner has wide-ranging interests, from technology and business to music and motorcycles. She writes features regularly for ECT News Network, and her work has also appeared in American Profile, Bluegrass Unlimited, and many other publications. For more about her, visit her website. You can also connect with Vivian on Google+.

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