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[Book Summary] The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It

The Apology Impulse (2019) reveals how corporations have cheapened the act of saying sorry. These days, apologies are issued to customers for any perceived slight, with the sheer quantity making them meaningless. At the same time, corporations offer weak, jargon-filled fauxpologies in situations where real apologies are required. To save the apology, corporations need to learn how to say sorry wholeheartedly but only when strictly necessary.

[Book Summary] The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It

Content Summary

Introduction: What’s in it for me? Reclaim the powerful ritual of saying sorry.
Corporations are apologizing so much that saying sorry has lost its meaning.
Outrage capitalism has fueled transactional apologies.
Companies are making promises that they can’t live up to.
Corporations have mastered the art of saying sorry, not sorry.
Companies are forgetting that apologies must always be centered on the injured parties.
Saying sorry isn’t enough. Companies have to walk their talk.
Sometimes it’s better not to apologize at all.
Final Summary
About the author
Video and Podcast


Marketing, Sales, Corporate Culture, Business, Public Relations, Business Ethics, Communication Skills

Introduction: Reclaim the powerful ritual of saying sorry.

Saying sorry and asking for forgiveness is an essential human ritual. It indicates that we can tell when we’ve done something wrong, and that we’re able to take responsibility. That’s why every major religion includes acts of repentance, and parents go to such great lengths to teach their toddlers to apologize as soon as they can speak. Saying sorry is an invaluable part of what allows us to live together in communities. It’s a social glue.

But these days, apologies are being issued so frequently that they’ve completely lost their value. And often, apologies are being formulated so evasively by lawyers and PR teams that they’re actually excuses or defenses dressed up as an apology.

So how do we reclaim the power of a good apology? These summaries will show you how to see through all the corporate waffle and identify when an apology is genuine. They’ll teach you how to center wronged parties in an apology and address their grievances. Lastly, they’ll help you discover that sometimes the best course of action is not to apologize at all.

Along the way you’ll also learn

  • how viral news sites have fueled an apology industry;
  • why KFC was forgiven for running out of chicken; and
  • why airlines apologize so much more often than banks.

Corporations are apologizing so much that saying sorry has lost its meaning.

In the first few months of 2014, American Airlines apologized to customers an astonishing 200 times per day. You might think that they were in the midst of a huge crisis, but in fact, things were going smoothly. They were apologizing for minor grievances such as delays and meals that weren’t to customers’ satisfaction.

Industries like airlines, taxi services, and supermarkets are especially sensitive to customer complaints because it’s very easy for a customer to change companies if they’re unhappy. If you book a Ryanair flight and then get angry about not being able to check your pet canary in, you can always try your luck with easyJet instead. But if you get annoyed with your bank, you’ll have to go through a lot of tedious admin in order to change. That means “high friction” industries like banks and telecom companies invest a lot less energy in customer service, while “low friction” ones, like airlines, have to work very hard to keep your custom.

The advent of social media has meant that customers get to air their grievances on the world stage. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter give companies a way to directly interact with their customers, which can have enormous advantages for strengthening their brands. But on the other side, it gives customers a perfect platform to “name and shame” corporations who have displeased them. To appease such customers, corporations have taken to apologizing – all the time.

While this outpouring of remorse might seem like a positive thing, it’s actually made the act of saying sorry lose its meaning. If a company employs a strategy of tactical appeasement in response to every complaint, it weakens the legitimacy of genuine apologies.

Corporations need to keep a sense of proportion when deciding if – and how – to apologize. Making a grovelling apology for a minor transgression makes light of more serious injuries. When Tesco said that they were “very sorry” for the life-threatening mistake of dispensing the wrong medication to a customer, they sounded sincere. However, they also said they were “very sorry” for mistakenly labelling dress-up costumes. One mistake could cause serious illness or even death, while the other is completely trivial. Treating them as worthy of the same kind of apology is absurd.

When it comes to apologies, quality trumps quantity. Apologizing selectively actually increases an organization’s credibility. It also shows that it’s able to be genuinely reflective, and that when it says sorry it really means it.

Outrage capitalism has fueled transactional apologies.

Out of all the items that come up on your news feed, how many are stories about corporate wrongdoing? These stories have become commonplace. But the truth is, customer complaints would begin and end on Twitter if it weren’t for the collusion of the media in promoting them as big news.

Viral news writers have worked out a sure-fire formula for getting people to read and share stories: appealing to their sense of outrage. The best way to do that is with narratives about innocent customers fighting against villainous corporations. That’s why writers are constantly on the lookout for juicy customer complaints. When they report on them, a tweet which may have been instantly buried on Twitter is suddenly given a lot of exposure, amplifying the story and putting even more pressure on the corporation to apologize. When they do, journalists are given yet another headline as they report on one more corporation making a “humiliating” apology.

This cycle of manufactured outrage has resulted in crisis fatigue for corporations. They’re so wary of complaints blowing up in the media that they try to appease customers at all costs, even if they haven’t actually done anything wrong. Take H&M, for example. In 2018, they received some complaints that the lettering on a child’s LEGO-themed socks could look like the word “Allah” in Arabic. In spite of the fact that this wasn’t true, they apologized and took the costly step of discontinuing the line just because a small number of people were upset.

Outrage capitalism doesn’t end with viral news sites. Humiliating brands has become a lucrative industry. “Dark PR” strategies focus on discrediting brand competitors by using nefarious tricks such as posting complaints from fake accounts. Up until now, online influencers have been known for brand endorsements. However, several have also been offered large sums of money to discredit a brand for the benefit of their competitors.

How do brands respond to outrage capitalism, and distinguish genuine, valid grievances from frivolous or antagonistic complaints? Simply put, they need to stop panicking in the face of criticism and take some time to reflect on what the best course of action might be in a particular situation. Sometimes a genuine apology is merited. But in other cases they need to stand up to what amounts to a shakedown by the viral news industry.

Companies are making promises that they can’t live up to.

On a cold winter day in 2018, hungry British families lined up at KFC for a serving of the company’s famous chicken, only to be told that the store had completely run out! More than half of UK branches had run out of the crucial ingredient, and had to summarily close their doors.

Customers were a little grumpy, but their intrinsic faith in the brand wasn’t shaken. In fact, when KFC ran an ad saying “FCK, we’re sorry,” customers laughed along and put the incident behind them. Everyone understands that logistics occasionally don’t go as planned.

This is an operational failure, which is quite straightforward to put right. Stock up on chicken, apologize for the lapse, and move on. More problematic are what are known as cultural failures, which relate to the core values of a company.

Today, many brands promise not only to provide goods and services but also to be committed to social causes. In some cases, brands actually follow through on their social commitments. For example, both Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia have been donating 1 percent of profits to social causes for many years. They also have transparent supply chains and invest in the environment. They literally put their money where their mouths are, which gives them credibility with customers.

But for many other brands, aligning with social causes is more a superficial marketing ploy than a structural commitment. When Dove claims to sell body acceptance along with its moisturizing soap and Pepsi positions itself as the drink of activists, they’re setting themselves up for intense scrutiny of their marketing campaigns and operations. This is because their promises are all about optics instead of substance. When a customer inevitably spots a mismatch between their social commitments and actual practices, they’re faced with a cultural failure, which is very hard to fix. So they’re forced to apologize over and over again.

Instead of promising customers the world and then disappointing them, companies should change their marketing to reflect who they really are: businesses that want to make money in return for providing goods or services. This is a strategy soft drink brand Oasis has used with much success. They don’t promise to help unite families or make you like your body. But they do guarantee they’ll give you a refreshing drink, a promise they can actually deliver on.

Corporations have mastered the art of saying sorry, not sorry.

The cast of La La Land had a few seconds of pure euphoria when they won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017. But euphoria turned to disbelief when it was revealed that they hadn’t won it at all; Moonlight was the true recipient. The organizers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, had bungled the envelopes with the winner’s names.

In a statement released the next day, PwC said, “We apologize…for the error that was made.” At first, it might sound like PwC was taking responsibility. But by using the passive voice, it was sneakily trying to squirm out of doing just that.

Corporate apologies are famous for being full of these kinds of linguistic gymnastics. One corporate strategy is to use euphemisms or jargon to try to make a situation look better than it actually is. For example, when a video surfaced of a United Airlines passenger who was violently removed from his chair on an airplane, CEO Oscar Munoz made the situation much worse when he said the airline had needed to “re-accommodate a passenger.” This description was so out of touch with reality that it made the controversy around the incident much larger and caused internet commentators to boil with rage.

In an even more dangerous understatement, the chemicals giant Arkema Inc. refused to acknowledge that there had been an explosion at one of its factories, describing it instead as “overpressurization followed by a fire.” By refusing to acknowledge that there had actually been an explosion, Arkema not only misled the public but also put first responders in danger. Several people at the scene were injured because they weren’t properly informed about the explosions.

Understatement is only one linguistic trick used by corporate PR teams. Another is to subtly cast doubt on the victim’s version of events by using evasive language. For example, when it was revealed that scores of Canadian parents had lost custody of their children on the basis of flawed drug tests performed on strands of hair, the laboratory, Motherisk, apologized only that the families “feel they may have been impacted in some negative way.” That slippery formulation makes it seem that the damage is a feeling, rather than a catastrophic reality that Motherisk needs to account for. This does a terrible disservice to the victims.

All effective apologies are predicated on the guilty party acknowledging and then taking full responsibility for what happened. Only then can they ask for forgiveness. By using jargon, euphemisms, and slippery language, corporate apologies have become empty defensive statements, rather than true expressions of remorse.

Companies are forgetting that apologies must always be centered on the injured parties.

Imagine you fall in a hole that’s been left in the sidewalk by some construction workers, injuring your leg. When you complain, the building company responds by telling you how stressful and hard the situation is for them. Chances are, you’ll be even more upset by that response.

It might seem very obvious that an apology should focus on the people who have been hurt. But many corporations make the mistake of focusing on how the situation is affecting them, rather than the injured party.

In 2010, BP had a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused 11 deaths and 16 injuries aboard the oil rig, and devastated the environment. When he addressed the public, CEO Tony Hayward made the big mistake of talking about himself instead of focusing on the victims. He said, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do…I want my life back.” Naturally, this statement caused a huge amount of hurt and outrage, especially among the families of the people who had actually lost their lives.

While this is an especially bad example, the tendency to talk about companies rather than victims is widespread. For example, Samsung used an apology to claim that “safety remains our top priority” in spite of the fact that its Note 7 devices were prone to bursting into flames. And when data firm Equifax had a data breach that put 143 million people’s vital information at risk, it argued that “We pride ourselves on being a leader in managing and protecting data.” It’s understandable that a corporation would scramble to try and bolster its reputation in the face of such a crisis. But here again, Equifax made the apology about itself and what it aspires to be, instead of centering on the people who had actually experienced damages.

When you’re recovering from your fall and nursing your broken leg what you want to hear is that people see how you’re suffering and what broader impact it’ll have on your life. And that they’re very, very sorry. Apologizing doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

Saying sorry isn’t enough. Companies have to walk their talk.

In 2010, a young, hoodie-clad Mark Zuckerberg apologized to Facebook users for violating their privacy and vowed to do better. He had recently started Facebook, and people accepted that there were teething problems; they forgave the apparent lapse.

In 2018, Zuckerberg had to apologize again for breaches in data security, this time in the context of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Eight years after his first apology, his second didn’t hold much weight. It’s not enough to say you’ll change. You have to actually follow through.

Willingness to take concrete action was what made JetBlue CEO David Neeleman’s apology so exemplary. When flight disruptions affected 130,000 JetBlue customers in 2007, Neeleman made a sincere and contrite apology to his customers. But he didn’t stop there; he also laid out a plan of action. In a Youtube video, he shared a “customer bill of rights” that detailed the compensation customers could expect in the event of future delays. The company then followed through with these promises, allowing customers to see that it really did take its commitment seriously.

Another way to signal the seriousness of your intent is to put your money where your mouth is and show that you’re willing to take a financial blow to put things right. H&M pulling its Lego sock line because it caused offense may have been a little excessive, but at least the company showed that it was willing to make things right. After all, product recalls are enormously expensive.

Starbucks made an even more dramatic gesture when it shut down all its stores so that employees could receive racial bias training following an incident in which two black men weren’t allowed to access the bathroom in one of its stores; an employee didn’t believe the men were real customers.

Making reparations directly to affected groups is another effective strategy. For example, when Papa John’s Pizza was trying to make amends for racist remarks its founder had made, it decided to donate $500,000 to a historically black university, Bennett College. Putting money on the line was a way of showing the seriousness of its intent.

But just throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away. The ritual of reparations is delicate, and has to be handled with respect and sensitivity. When Topshop made a donation of $25,000 to the charity Girl Up only hours after attracting criticism for scrapping a feminist book display, the move was seen as crass; a payoff instead of a genuine act of contrition.

Sometimes it’s better not to apologize at all.

You might think that when you complain about a company, you’re talking about an abstract, faceless entity. But really, behind any organization’s PR strategy there’s a team of real people, and they’re often quaking in their boots when on the receiving end of a negative social media campaign.

When you have thousands of angry tweets and Facebook posts accusing your company of the worst possible things and threatening a boycott, it can be easy to panic and try to do anything to appease them.

But a corporation needs to keep a sense of perspective and be able to tell the difference between the feelings of its actual client base and its social media following. The loudest voices on Twitter may not actually be the people who buy its products.

The fitness supplement brand Protein World understood this distinction very well. When its billboard campaign attracted widespread criticism for featuring a bikini-clad model with the tagline “Are you beach body ready?” it simply refused to apologize. This seemed like a risky move, but it actually worked in the company’s favor – it attracted 20,000 new customers and generated one million pounds in sales over four days. The company understood that its core market consisted of people who were motivated to work out and look just like the model on the billboard. By refusing to appease its critics, Protein World signaled loyalty to its real customers. As this example shows, criticism isn’t always a bad thing for a brand.

By refusing to apologize when an apology isn’t necessarily due, a company can show that it has a strong backbone. For example, when Marks & Spencer was accused of selling toilet paper adorned with aloe leaves which spelled out “Allah” in Arabic, it behaved very differently to H&M. In spite of mounting pressure, it refused to cave. Instead, it issued a statement saying that it had investigated the claim, and found that the toilet paper was categorically an aloe leaf. In refusing to apologize, M&S broke the outrage cycle.

When the flood of criticism comes, PR teams need to take a few deep breaths and start investigating before they blurt out an apology. If they review the facts and discover they’re culpable, then they need to say sorry unreservedly and take steps to make things right. But if in fact no apology is due, they should stand strong and stick to their principles. It’s a difficult call to make, but it’s the only way to safeguard the true meaning of saying sorry.

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries:

Corporations say sorry all the time, but nobody really means it. They’re just apologizing to try and escape damage at the hands of disgruntled customers whose complaints are amplified by the viral media. In order to reclaim the act of saying sorry as an expression of genuine remorse, we need to apologize only when we’ve actually done something wrong. When we say sorry, we should focus on the experience of the people who’ve been hurt, take full responsibility for our actions, and follow through on our promises of reform and reparation.

Actionable advice:

When faced with a conflict, take some time to reflect before responding.

When someone is angry with you, it’s very tempting to reply immediately and try to placate them, or maybe fire back an angry response of your own. But the best responses are thoughtful ones. Take a day to really look at the situation and do some soul-searching. Are you at fault? And if so, how can you make it right? One well-crafted response is much more effective than a barrage of messages blurting out the first thing that comes to mind.

About the author

Sir Cary Cooper, CBE, is the 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School. He holds the office of president of the CIPD, the British Academy of Management, RELATE and Institute of Welfare. He has been voted the Most Influential HR Thinker by HR Magazine and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Management. He was made a CBE in 2001 for his contribution to occupational health and awarded a Knighthood in 2014 for his contribution to the social sciences.

He is President of the British Academy of Management, is a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute and one of the first UK based Fellows of the (American) Academy of Management. He is also the President of the Institute of Welfare and Chair of the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences.

He is a leading commentator on workplace issues and wellbeing, having authored and edited numerous books and articles on the subject, as well as being a frequent contributor to national newspapers, TV and radio.

He was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by the Queen in 2001 for his contribution to occupational health, and awarded a Knighthood by the Queen in 2014 for his contribution to the social sciences.

Cary Cooper

Sean O’Meara is the founder and MD of Essential Content a specialist content and PR agency. He’s worked with leading organisations The Co-Op Bank and the BBC.

Sean O'Meara

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