Sean O’Meara – The Apology Impulse – Author Glassboard
SEAN O’MEARA [00:00:06] Hey, my name is Sean O’Meara. I am a publicist, a writer, and I’m the co-author of this book, The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It. The book set out to answer two questions. Why are businesses apologising all the time? And why are they so bad at it? Let’s see if we can answer that first question.
SEAN O’MEARA [00:00:33] If we track all of the news reports, high profile public apologies in the past 20 years looks a bit like this. 1999 is about one year after Google launched, and it is now 2019. Here’s your timeline. Now, this axis is all of the public apologies that are indexed in Google go back 20 years. Nice and steady. Nothing weird. And then the massive spike around here, and around here, 2008. So what happened in 2008? To make all these companies so sorry? The short answer is Twitter. When Twitter launched, organisations saw it as a free marketing tool, which it is. Consumers didn’t necessarily see it like that they saw it as the perfect vehicle and platform to feedback to organisations, tell them what they thought of them that caused problems as well as being a free marketing tool. Social media gave organisations and businesses three challenges.
SEAN O’MEARA [00:01:59] First challenge was visibility. Consumers could see what they were doing while they were doing it. Second challenge was accessibility. Consumers could get to the organisations before Twitter, before Facebook you would have to write a letter or speak to the manager if a company done something to annoy you. The third challenge is accountability. Now that one is crucial. Companies in short are apologising a lot more because social media has made them more accountable to their consumers. When Professor Cary Cooper and I wrote this book, we analysed hundreds of apologies and we identified three key points the failure of any corporate apology. The first points of failure is tone. Striking the right tone with an apology is really important. If we imagine contrition exists on a spectrum. This and you’ve got mild contrition. So if we’re meeting for coffee and I’m five minutes late, I’m gonna say sorry I’m late. I’m not gonna say I’m extremely sorry and I’m not gonna beg for forgiveness because that would be weird. If I run over your dog, I’m gonna be extremely sorry. If I was to run over your dog and say, I regret the inconvenience. It’s not a proper apology. Corporations don’t quite understand this, and they often overegg their contrition, even trivial matters have extreme apologies. Good example of that is a retailer a couple of years ago whose in-house pharmacist gave out the wrong medication, the customer ended up really ill in hospital for three nights and she missed most of Christmas. When the supermarket addressed the problem, they said, we’re extremely sorry. This was a dispensing error. We’re going to look into it to how to fix it. A few months after that happened, a customer on Twitter complained that their online shopping order was wrong. Same supermarket replied, We’re extremely sorry. This was a selection error. We’re looking into how to fix it. So they applied the same degree of contrition to two very different apologies. Now, another way to strike the right tone is empathy. Empathy intersects with contrition like this. Now, you might think as much empathy as possible is a good thing. But it’s not quite true. A study conducted in an airport found that in a problem-solving situation. Displays of high empathy lowered consumer perceptions of competence. So what that meant is if your bags have gone missing, aerial flights delayed and the person apologising to you is highly empathetic, you may perceive them as being less capable of solving your problem. So striking the right tone when delivering an apology is really important. You need to apply the right amount of contrition and combine it with the correct degree of empathy. If you get it wrong. You get a terrible apology. Couple of years ago, when a well-known budget airline, how to do an emergency landing in Germany on its way to Croatia. Customers exited the plane with bleeding ears. The apology this airline gave was, we regret any inconvenience caused. If you’re the customer in a German hospital with bleeding ears. That doesn’t cut it. Another point of failure is ownership. Organisations are really bad at taking ownership for their mistakes, but they’re really good at hiding the fact that they’re not taking ownership for their mistakes. One way they do this is through language. And the passive voice is a really, really common way to distance yourself or your organisation from the thing that you’re apologising for. A national British newspaper quite recently had to retract an article it had written about a former prime minister. In their apology, they said an article was published online. It fell below our standards and it was edited. That’s the passive voice, if they do use the active voice, they have said. We published an article online. It fell below our standards, we edited it. Passive voice is a really sneaky way of distancing yourself from what you did.
SEAN O’MEARA [00:07:02] Another sneaky way of hiding distance and putting space between the error and the organisation using language is to give a qualified apology. If you hear an organisation say, we’re sorry if or we regret this happened, however, don’t accept the apology because that’s not an apology. Organisations also love to give themselves character references. So a company that’s just been hacked might start their apology by saying we take data security really seriously. There’s no point adding that to the apology because the thing you’re about to apologise for is coming next proves that even if you do care about it, you don’t care about it enough to stop the thing happening. Another point of failure with a corporate apology is impulsiveness. A lot of organisations give an apology before actually thinking. Are we sorry? This comes across as really insincere and consumers can see through it quite easily. There’s tons of examples online and as soon as an organisation gives an impulsive apology for a trivial complaint, it becomes a media event. So many examples from the past few years of organisations getting really bad PR, damaging their own reputation and humiliating themselves in the process just because they said sorry, because they didn’t have a crisis plan to explain or to reject criticism. So if you’re an organisation and you find yourself having to say sorry, here’s how to do it properly, strike the right tone, decide how sorry you are and how which empathy to put in. Only apology by not using the passive voice and don’t be impulsive, ask yourself. Always sorry. How sorry are we? Most importantly, what we’re going to do about it. There’s no point in an organisation apologising to consumers unless they’ve got a path to recovery.