This originally was published as my article in RSVP MN Magazine for September 2013. Click here to read it there
We’ve all had to say, “I am sorry” to someone at some time (at least I hope so). We’re human. We screw things up and we need to make things right. The same thing happens in business. Probably more than we ever want it to. The problem of today, in business, sometimes when we screw up, it’s online. Instead of only a few people seeing it, the potential is that millions of people have now seen it. It’s hard enough sometimes to apologize person to person, and now you have to potentially apologize to hundreds, thousands or millions online. It’s a pretty daunting task.
Apologizing online falls into a completely different aspect of apologies. It tends to be very public. It is hard to convey feelings or emotions via text and 140 characters. It can easily be assumed to be false or not heartfelt or true, and in the worst cases it can be seen as patronizing and condescending. There are some basic best practices that need to be followed to allow your online apology to be accepted and that you are able to recover from the mistake that led to the issue in the first place. Here are five best practices to help you say you’re sorry online:
1. Respond immediately when there is an issue. In today’s age of business there is no excuse for not monitoring your name and brand online. There are plenty of free tools like Google Alerts, and push notifications from Twitter and Facebook to let you know when someone mentions you or your company online. We live in a time of instant communications, and businesses can no longer “wait to formulate a response.” In the time you take to formulate that response, the issues can go viral. Remember the Domino’s Pizza video of employees doing crude things to food? The company found out about it on a Sunday night, but waited until Wednesday to take the first step. By then there were well over a hundred thousand views of the video.
2. Always apologize on the same social or online channel where the offense or issue is mentioned. If it is on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yelp, etc., you need to respond to the report of the issue where it has been made. Even if you need time to investigate an issue, by responding quickly on the same channel helps convey the perception and thought that you care. Then keep the lines of communication open on those same channels until the issue has been resolved. Bystanders may see your efforts and at least understand you are responding to the situation. Going silent only hurts matters by letting the message and sentiment be formed in your absence. If there is no means to respond, such as the comment being made on a blog, website, or online publication which doesn’t allow for responses, use your own channels (blog, website, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to respond. Link to the original online remark (URL) to inform the audience to the details of the incident, when the issue is searched for in the future, your response will be tied to the issue that happened.
3. Explain what went wrong. It might have been as simple as someone sent out the wrong message or hit send without thinking. You need to let people know how you are reacting to the problem and taking steps to correct it. Without conveying any self-examination and action towards resolution, it will appear as if you don’t care and are doing nothing. Remember, online isn’t always as visual so convey these thoughts in words.
4. Explain what you are doing to correct the situation and what steps you are putting in place to ensure it won’t happen again. This goes hand in hand with the previous step. If there is no plan or evidence of changed behavior, it will appear you are insincere and not really doing anything about the problem, and hence you are thought not to care about it. Add links and evidence to show what steps are being taken if that would help. Copies of new company policies or guidelines would be great to post as would photos of corrections, and so on. Evidence goes a long way toward rebuilding trust in your actions.
5. Finally, use the apology as an opportunity to make amends. If you show that you truly realize the scope and magnitude of your actions has hurt your standing in the community, use this opportunity to become a better corporate citizen. Overachieve on your next endeavor, especially if there is a community benefit to doing it. Your brand is only as valuable as the audience that follows, supports and enjoys what you do and your role in their lives. It is all too easy to move on to the next brand. Don’t allow your brand to lose reputation credibility and following all because of a few missteps. The best companies in the digital age will plan for a strategy and policy that heads this off at the beginning rather than a plan that chases the tail end of the problem.
By mastering the art of apologizing online, you may be able to save your company, your brand, or hopefully at the very least, your job.