Jean Gogolin is a wordwright. And it turns out she knows a thing or two about apologizing effectively, too.
A wordwright, in Jean’s words, is an “artisan with words. Someone who builds with language like a shipwright builds ships…and teaches others how to do it.” I first met Jean out a meeting of our local chamber and her newsletter, The WordWright, is a favorite. I know for sure there’ll be a gem in there and that Jean’s wit will make finding that gem fun. Her most recent newsletter featured her article How to Say You’re Sorry. Really Sorry and Jean’s kindly given me permission to reprint it here (to subscribe to Jean’s newsletter, be sure to read to the bottom of this post).
How to Say You’re Sorry. Really Sorry.
“I sincerely regret my words; they in no way reflect my true feelings.”
“We regret that our actions may have been misconstrued by some.”
“If my actions were inappropriate, the mistake was inadvertent.”
“My choice of wording was unfortunate, but any offense was unintentional.”
There. Feel better now?
Like global warming, corporate chagrin has become a big story—especially in the beleaguered airline industry, where CEOs have been eating a steady diet of, if not crow, at least humble pie.
Last Friday morning, JetBlue canceled 215 flights into New York—a third of all its flights—because another major snowstorm was predicted. Little chance this time that passengers would spend 10 hours on the tarmac as they did in February, or that JetBlue CEO David Neeleman would appear on Letterman to describe himself as “mortified” at the disaster.
All over the place, executives are apologizing.
In Massachusetts, newly elected Governor Deval Patrick found himself apologizing for, first, leasing a Cadillac instead of a Ford, and then spending $100,000 on new furniture and draperies for his office.
“We screwed up,” admitted Patrick, who then spoiled the apology by saying the media had paid too much attention to “minor details” instead of affairs of the state. He’s been on the defensive every since.
Apologizing is not easy—especially for people used to being in charge. According to New York Times columnist Deborah Tannen, one C.E.O. found he could avoid apologizing altogether by having his deputy make amends for him after he lost temper.
Every good PR person knows the best way to handle foul-ups is to forthrightly take responsibility and apologize. The problem is, the people we serve don’t always take our advice. Or their apologies are so insincere as to be meaningless — like the smarmy “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.” Or the classic “Mistakes were made.” (Oh? By whom?)
There was a time when organizational goofs could be hidden, so apologies were unnecessary. No more.
In a new book called My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies (affiliate link), Paul Slansky says public apologies have become so much a part of the social landscape that people expect them. The problem comes when the apologizers blame someone or something else else for their behavior. Example: Mel Gibson’s blaming alcohol for his anti-Semitic rant.
As Slansky put it, “Alcohol does not put thoughts in your brain; it lets them out of your mouth.”
Lesson? When you mess up, admit it.
Columnist Amy Dickinson of The Chicago Tribune says there are two words never to use in an apology: If and But.
As in, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” or “I’m sorry, but that’s not what I meant.” Both throw the offense back over the fence to the other guy, making it his fault.
She also advises against using words like “regret,” which sound, and are, formulaic and insincere.
Apologies that work—the kind that make employees and customers feel better—should be personal rather than corporate, human rather than abstract or imperious, and immediate rather than next week or next year.
Further, they should offer to make amends. For instance, companies could offer coupons for future goods or services, as some airlines are doing.
Finally, they should make sure they’re apologizing for the offending words or actions themselves –not merely for getting caught.