When David Neeleman, the founder of American airline JetBlue, published a YouTube video entitled “Our Promise to You” in 2007, it was the first corporate social media apology. The video set the standard for modern crisis management.
Snow storms and bad planning had forced the airline to cancel more than a thousand flights, affecting over 130,000 customers. Yet Neeleman’s response was so good, it actually improved perceptions of JetBlue. The apology was frank, sincere and, crucially, contained within it a tangible commitment to improvement – all essential elements of a credible corporate apology.
In 2007, it was uncommon for large organisations to directly ask forgiveness from their customers. Nowadays, the sight of a powerful organisation begging forgiveness in public is anything but rare.
In September alone, Ikea, Saga, Fox News, The Guardian, Clear Channel, and World Rugby all made headlines with public apologies for a variety of transgressions, from selling inauthentic jerk chicken to playing the wrong national anthem. Tesco has contributed at least 10 public apologies in the past 12 months all by itself.
However, in order to be effective, apologies should be rare. Atonement is like a currency – the more of it being issued, the less valuable it becomes. Yet because businesses are no longer answerable solely to their customers, but to anyone with a Twitter account and a well-developed sense of grievance, they’re saying sorry more than ever.
Here’s an example. In 2017, the campaign group Stop Funding Hate chastised Paperchase for advertising in the Daily Mail, and the retailer encountered a formidable Twitter backlash. It would be naive to believe that every single angry tweet came from a Paperchase customer. It didn’t matter though. Paperchase, like a freshly reprimanded child, said sorry, promised never to do it again, and everyone moved on.
As Professor Cary Cooper and I explore in our book The Apology Impulse, the act of apologising is in crisis. And often these days, not saying sorry can actually be a better option.
For instance, supplement provider Protein World claimed to have enjoyed a £1m boost in revenue after refusing to apologise for its “beach body ready” advertising campaign. And in 2018, M&S refused to apologise for apparently sexist window displays – it still has customers.
Aside from affecting perceptions, corporate apologies can also have a direct impact on a company’s value. In 2017, United Airlines’ stock price dropped by nearly $1bn when chief executive Oscar Munoz botched his apology after a customer was filmed being dragged from a United flight. He tried again, taking full responsibility for the scandal, and restored United’s value by approximately $750,000. A good apology delivered at the right time can help a company regain trust during a crisis.
Less is more, though. Apologising impulsively can easily damage a company’s value. A 2018 study found that “both apologising when the firm is not directly responsible for the crisis and failing to apologise when the firm is directly responsible reduce shareholder wealth”.
So organisations should start treating their apologies like a precious resource, saving them for the times when they genuinely need to be sorry.
And even then, it won’t always work. Studies have shown that people consistently overestimate the satisfaction that they’ll get from receiving an apology. People like the idea of getting an apology more than they actually like hearing the word “sorry”. Clearly, sorry needs to be a harder word.
Main image credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images.