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Apology 101: How to Save Your Reputation

It's never easy to say, "I'm sorry." But sometimes, apologizing for a gaffe is the only way to really protect your reputation. Here's how to do it right.

Every small business owner out there is bound to deal with some kind of social media snafu. Customers might complain on review sites like Yelp, they might share photos of shoddy service on Facebook, or they might craft snarky hashtags on Twitter about a company’s name or products.

Small business owners have to respond to all of these attacks to save their reputations. But many business owners (understandably) get writer’s block. They don’t know what to say. That’s especially true when the attacks come due to some kind of business mistake.

And if they hire an SEO firm to step in during the crisis, we might also be momentarily stumped. What’s the right way to apologize? Here is my foolproof business apology template, along with some notes about apology pitfalls.


Apology Dos

When a snarky complaint comes about due to a genuine mistake made by a business (and many complaints fall into this category, unfortunately), there’s a quick and straightforward way to handle the issue. Companies should issue an apology that contains these words.

“I am Sorry”

An apology isn’t really an apology without these three little words. Using them allows you to demonstrate that you really do feel remorse for causing an issue that prompted a complaint. Starting an apology with these words helps you show you are ready to take responsibility for what has happened in the past.

A good example comes from dreamy Benedict Cumberbatch, who was forced to apologize for using a slur during an off-the-cuff interview. In his statement to People, the English actor used only one sentence of introduction before simply stating his apologies. It’s a classy way to start out.

“Here’s What Happened”

People who complain often want to know just went wrong. An apology should provide them with that data. Otherwise, the complaints will keep on coming in until people feel as though the issue has been addressed in a complete and comprehensive manner.

US Airways had to take this approach last year, when the company inadvertently sent out a NSFW photograph via Twitter. In the apology provided to a local news station, representatives outlined exactly how that little gem of an image was captured and sent back out.

A detailed explanation helps to highlight the fact that there’s been an investigation and that people are aware of the issue and how it came to be. That can quell any bubbling concerns about a coverup or a conspiracy.

“We’ll Make Sure it Doesn’t Happen Again”

While explaining what happened is always a great idea, it’s best to build on that success by outlining just what you plan to change in order to keep the future gaffe free. Putting in two lines about the policies you’ll change, the people you’ll hire or the groups you’ll fire can demonstrate how serious you are about solving the problem for good.

“If You Have Additional Concerns, Contact Me Here”

When it comes to social media, the quicker you can stop the chatter about a problem, the better. That’s why providing an open line of communication is an excellent crisis mitigation step.

If you can, set up a special mailbox for complaints, or put a few more people on the clock to answer questions. Then, man those phones and boxes like crazy and make sure every issue is addressed. You’ll keep the issue quiet, while keeping those complainers happy.

Apology Don’ts

It’s remarkably easy to mess up an apology and do more reputation damage than you ever thought possible. Here are three common errors that could make your apology so much less effective.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

If you’re asked to apologize, either for your own business or for a client, resist the urge to get up on your high horse and punish the speaker. Sure, you might be offended or upset, but those feelings shouldn’t wend their way into your response.

There are tons of examples of people who doubled down on mistakes. A recent example comes from the capital, where a Florida lawmaker made a few disparaging comments about another state. When the people of that state demanded an apology, the lawmaker responded with comments about hell freezing over, according to local news reports. Now, the issue is even bigger than it would have been, had the lawmaker simply provided an apology.

Defending Your Work

It’s very tempting to sprinkle a few words about your great work in your apology. Typically, these little sneaky messages end up buried in sentences that should be all about explaining how the problem took place. But instead of being dispassionate and explaining the facts, a botched apology will contain a lot of excuses.

Consider the Nationwide statement about the Super Bowl 2015 ad about early childhood death. The company felt compelled to respond after people complained about the sad content of this spot during an event that was meant to be fun and lighthearted. Many people expected an apology, but instead, the statement contained information about how many people clicked on a website the ad pushed. This isn’t likely to soothe people who were offended.

Speaking Too Quickly

It sounds counter intuitive, I know, but speaking up too quickly about an issue can lead to yet more problems. Consider this: In a study published in Science Direct, researchers found that apologies given later were more effective than apologies given earlier. Apparently, allowing a little time to lapse between an issue and an apology allows the wounded party to express his/her concerns. The apology that comes from that listening process seems to have more power.

Dashing off an apology just as soon as an issue hits the water, without doing any investigation into the problem or considering who the wounded party might be, can lead to apologies that ring a little hollow and that don’t really solve the problem.

A good rule of thumb: When you know the scope of the problem and have solutions in place, that’s the time to issue a heartfelt apology stuffed full of detail. If you feel compelled to speak before then, a simple statement that suggests that you’re aware of the issue and working on a solution might help. Just resist the urge to speak out until you know just what you’ll need to say to make the issue go away for good.

Following Up

Once you have a good apology going, share that thing far and wide. Pop it up on your social media accounts, put it on your company website and be sure you’re making the most of all of the hard work you’ve done to address the concerns that are swirling.

And finally, be sure that you keep the promises you’ve made in that apology. After all, there’s nothing worse than a company that keeps making the same mistake, over and over again. Do that, and all the apologies in the world aren’t likely to help. Once you’ve identified an issue, you simply must fix it.

I know it’s difficult to share war stories, but I’d love to hear some from you. Do you have an epic tale of woe and redemption to share? What did your apology say, and how did it go over? Please share in the comments section, so we can all learn together.


Image Credits

Featured Image: PDPics via Pixabay
Image #1: StartupStockPhotos via Pixabay


Jean Dion Senior Journalist at

Jean Dion is a writer, editor, avid blogger and obsessed pet owner. She’s a senior journalist with, and writes ...

Apology 101: How to Save Your Reputation

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