Social media is a great marketing tactic. It’s free, wide-reaching, and practically guarantees an audience. But with great social media power comes great responsibility, and it’s far too easy for companies to send out an offensive Facebook status, blog post or tweet that incites an internet mob.
A company’s response to a social media gaffe can have a huge impact on its public perception. But it’s not enough just to issue an apology, it has to be the right kind of apology. If your tone or timing is off, or you don’t keep your demographic in mind, your apology may not go over as well as you hope. Here are a few common apology tactics that may only land you in more trouble:
This is one of the most common apology tactics, since many people want to reap the benefits of an apology without examining their actions or admitting they may have made a mistake. Non-apologies usually include some version of the phrase “I’m sorry you were offended.” This response seems like an apology (it includes the words “I’m sorry,” at least) but it actually bounces the blame off the person in question and back at the audience. Essentially, statements like this read as “I did nothing wrong, everyone else is just too sensitive.”
In 2009, author Alice Hoffman went on a Twitter tirade against Roberta Silman, a book reviewer for the Boston Globe who wasn’t thrilled with Hoffman’s book. Hoffman went as far as to tweet Silman’s phone number to her followers before deleting her account. In her apology, Hoffman expressed regret that the situation was “completely blown out of proportion” and added “I’m sorry if I offended anyone...I hope my readers understand that I didn’t mean to hurt anyone and I’m truly sorry if I did.”
“If” is the word to watch out for here. It makes her apology conditional and allows her to “apologize” without actually owning up to her actions, though it’s almost absurd in the context: of course she hurt someone by tweeting out their personal phone number. Even if you can’t understand why your audience is upset, don’t invalidate their feelings. Just take their word that you did something wrong and own up to it.
Beware the page-long public apology letter. If you’ve loaded it with backstory about the circumstances, motivations and reasoning behind the gaffe, it’s going to look like you’re trying to make excuses. While some people will get where you’re coming from, others will see a company or individual trying to dodge being accountable.
Kanye West’s rambling Twitter apology to Taylor Swift after his infamous interruption of her VMA acceptance speech only confused people. His heartfelt apologies were interspersed with remarks that Swift actually benefitted from the publicity and comments like “Who’s seen the play Wicked? I’ve seen it 4 times! Other than loving the music acting and costumes… it’s my story!!!”
Often it’s better just to own up to mistakes in a straightforward manner and move on.
The Double Down
All too often, public figures and brands go on the defensive when faced with negative PR. It’s an understandable response: no one wants to believe that they might be a bad person, and having hundreds of people suddenly telling you that you are can raise anyone’s hackles. Double Downers will usually keep arguing, maintaining their innocence or defending their position, which usually only escalates the situation until all sides are mashing their keyboards with capslock on and growling at their computer screens.
When comedian Michael Che received backlash for trivializing the anti-catcalling viral video produced by Hollaback!, he let loose with a series of bizarre tweets like “i think some of u are misunderstanding that post. im simply just making fun of something that is important to a lot of people.” This only served to make people angrier. A genuine apology still hasn’t been made.
To avoid doubling down, social media experts Jay Baer and Amber Naslund recommend fighting fire with water. Respond in a way that’s going to appease, not exacerbate. And give yourself time to collect yourself if you’re worried your pride is going to get the better of you.
How often have you seen a social media faux pas swept under the rug with something along the lines of “the intern did it”? Plenty of companies blame major gaffes on minor employees, followed by a timely announcement about how that employee is already fired.
KitchenAid tried this one back in 2012 after an employee tweeted a tasteless joke about the death of President Barack Obama’s grandmother. “The tasteless joke in no way represents our values at KitchenAid, and that person won't be tweeting for us anymore," the company announced.
It’s not a bad tactic; taking swift, decisive action usually plays well with the public, and you’re getting rid of a problematic employee. Still, it’s better to be more careful when deciding who has access to your Twitter account in the first place. Be aware, also, that this apology may look like you’re just deflecting guilt.
It’s possible to apologize without using any of these tactics. Using definitive statements like “I did something wrong and I’m sorry,” or “We made a mistake and we’re sorry” can be great ways to avoid the non-apology. You may not feel like you did anything wrong, but when your business is at stake, trying to empathize will always get you further than lashing out.
What are the best social media apologies you’ve seen? Let us know in the comments!