Mastering the Public Apology: The Most Epic Apology Letters of Our Time, and What Your Business Can Learn from Them

November 27th, 2017 | Isabella Steele | Customer Service | Blog Home
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From Papa John’s NFL apology to Louis C.K.’s apology (or non-apology) for sexual assault; brands in every industry are learning that the apology letter is an extremely difficult art form to master.

Whether it’s due to not wanting to admit fault, fear of losing fans or investors, or simply not knowing how, corporations and public figures often fall short of what people want and expect out of a public apology.

But why is that? What is it about the apology that can bring some of the biggest brands and names to their knees, or resurrect brands that seemed as good as gone?

The Psychology of the Apology

It turns out that to err is human, but to apologize (at least genuinely) may be less so. As psychologist and author of Why Won’t You Apologize Dr. Harriet Lerner says: “Humans are hard-wired for defensiveness. It’s very difficult to take direct, unequivocal responsibility for our hurtful actions. It takes a great deal of maturity to put a relationship or another person before our need to be right.”

Offering an apology is an admission of guilt that leaves people feeling vulnerable – or brands potentially liable. This is why some brands opt for the seemingly safer “non-apology” – a statement that has the form of an apology, but that doesn’t acknowledge responsibility or express true remorse.

Still, customers don’t respond to a non-apology the same way they do a sincere one. Research shows that customers feel a sense of restored fairness when companies apologize, provided CEOs show sufficient empathy— a key factor for successful personal apologies, too.

So, what can we learn from the apologies of the past? Here are some examples of the most epic public apologies and apology letters that modern history has to offer, and what you can take away from them.

Tylenol

In 1982, 12-year old Mary Kellerman woke up feeling sick. Her parents gave her one, Extra-Strength Tylenol and sent her back to bed. Hours later, at 7:00AM, they woke up to find their daughter dying on the bathroom floor.

That same morning, Adam Janus, age 27, picked his kids up from preschool and took two Tylenol to relieve cold-like symptoms. An hour later, Janus suffered a cardiopulmonary collapse and died suddenly. That evening, when relatives gathered at Janus’ home, Adam’s brother Stanley, 25, and his wife Theresa, 19, took Tylenol from the same bottle that Adam had. The couple was pronounced dead within 48 hours.

Mary, Adam, Stanley, and Theresa were 4 of seven people who died in the Chicago area from taking Tylenol pills that had been laced with cyanide.

The publicity about the cyanide-laced capsules immediately caused a nationwide panic. A hospital in Chicago received 700 telephone calls about Tylenol in one day. People in cities across the country were admitted to hospitals on suspicion of poisoning by cyanide. Around the world, people couldn’t get off an airplane without having their baggage searched for Tylenol.

Marketing experts thought that Tylenol was doomed. “I don’t think they can ever sell another product under that name,” advertising expert Jerry Della Femina told the New York Times in the first days following the crisis. “There may be an advertising person who thinks he can solve this and if they find him, I want to hire him, because then I want him to turn our water cooler into a wine cooler.”

Despite what seemed like a death sentence for the brand, Johnson & Johnson acted decisively as the issue unfolded. The company put their customer safety before their profits by recalling 31 million bottles of Tylenol capsules from store shelves and offering free replacements – a retail value of 100 million dollars. “Don’t risk it,” said the company’s chairman, James Burke to consumers. “Take the voucher so that when this crisis is over we can give you a product we both know is safe.”

At the time, a national recall was an unusual move for such a large company. “Before 1982, nobody ever recalled anything,” said Albert Tortorella, a managing director at Burson-Marsteller Inc., the New York public relations firm that advised Johnson & Johnson. “Companies often fiddle while Rome burns.” Yet the recall happened almost immediately – before police had even concluded whether this was an isolated incident or not.

As the Tylenol crisis continued to lead the news every night, Burke met the challenge head on, contacting the chief of each network’s news divisions in order to keep them informed and even letting them watch behind the scenes as the story developed (“The lawyers hated the fact that I was doing it,” said Burke, “because they didn’t know what our obligations were legally… I think that may have been intuitively one of the best things I did because I built a relationship with the heads of news networks. They called me day and night when they felt the need to.”) What the media saw was a company that had nailed all of the elements of the perfect public apology: it was remorseful, concerned with its customers, listening, communicative, and taking action.

As chairman, Burke worked with the directors of the FBI, FDA, and the Chicago Police. Johnson & Johnson announced that they would no longer be selling any products that would be made directly available to the consumer in capsule form. They went on to implement tamper-resistant packaging, and even put up a $100,000 reward for the killer.

“There were many people in the company who felt there was no possible way to save the brand, that it was the end of Tylenol,” Burke said. “But the fact is, I had confidence in J&J and its reputation, and also confidence in the public to respond to what was right. It helped turn Tylenol into a billion-dollar business.”

As the Harvard Business Review put it: “In short, given the nature of the crisis, Burke extended the virtually perfect public apology. He promptly acknowledged the problem. He accepted responsibility. He expressed concern. And he put his money where his mouth was: Not only did he offer to exchange all Tylenol capsules already purchased for Tylenol tablets; he promised new, secure packaging to make certain that the problem would never be repeated.”

Takeaways:

  • Apologizing is not always about admitting wrongdoing; it’s about admitting (and then showing) responsibility. Johnson & Johnson did not tamper with the Tylenol or administer the cyanide that killed 7 people. Yet they did not try and avoid responsibility for what happened. By addressing the press, law enforcement, and the public directly, frequently, and efficiently, Johnson & Johnson took responsibility for what happened. They then demonstrated their responsibility to the public by making a safer, better, more trustworthy product.
  • A good apology is first and foremost about the victim. Johnson and Johnson knew that, and put their customers’ safety and concerns before their profit, which paid off (within a year Tylenol had regained 90% of its market share) and saved the brand in the long run.

Dominoes

“’In about five minutes they will go out on delivery and people will be eating these and little do they know the cheese was in his nose.”

That’s what one of two rogue Domino’s employees said giggling back in 2009, on a YouTube video that described their tampering with food products. The video, which caused national disgust, showed the pair farting on salami, putting cheese up their nose – then using those ingredients to prepare the food.

The incident made Domino’s one of the first companies to take a major hit thanks to social media. And, it happened before Domino’s had a social media presence, which could have equipped it to better handle the situation.

Domino’s finally made a public apology 48 hours later, after the video had been viewed millions of times and the story had been picked up by both national and international news outlets. Domino’s President, Patrick Doyle, chose to deliver his “apology letter” via video, the same outlet that had started the whole PR mess:

This public apology video received mixed, though mostly positive, reviews from the audience. By choosing video as his method of delivery, Doyle put a face on the brand, making the apology seem more relatable and sincere to customers. There were, however, some points that resonated with customers than more than others.

Youtube comment

Source: YouTube

Communications research company, Media Curves, wanted to see just how believable Doyle’s apology was. To test this, the company studied the reaction of 243 people had to Domino’s apology video. Here’s what they found:

“As the President begins to outline the prank and how seriously he is taking the issue, the score shoots to the top of the “believability” scale.

It dips as he says it was an isolated incident, but when he says the two employees have been dismissed and will be arrested, the score begins to go upward again.

When the President begins to talk about the Dominos’ policy for cleanliness, and how they have auditors visiting stores on a daily basis to ensure clean premises, his score drops considerably.

When he goes on to say the owner of that particular franchise is reeling, and that they acknowledge the incident has caused damage to their brand, his believability score goes up.

Then, when he speaks from the heart, saying that it “sickened” him that the actions of two individuals could impact their company, his believability score goes through the roof.”

While the parts that consumers found less believable were a necessary part of a public apology (detailing what actions are being taken to prevent a reoccurrence), this study showed how much a sincere emotional appeal resonates with the general public.

Takeaways:

  • Be timely. Apologies that come too late can generate more bad press before the company gets to address the issue. If you don’t yet have the information needed to make an apology, issue a statement first. Domino’s could have done this by saying: “We are aware of the situation; we are looking into it, and will release a full statement once we know more.”
  • Have a social media response team. As Forbes contributor Patrick Vogt wrote in the weeks following the crisis: “If the Domino’s incident has taught us anything, it is that our brands and our reputations are vulnerable in new and unexpected ways.”
  • Make an emotional appeal. It’s good to have a balanced public apology. Don’t just state cold facts about the situation – be sincere and show customers how much you care about your brand.

Barack Obama

When former US president, Barack Obama, visited a manufacturing plant in 2014, he gave a speech in hopes of encouraging young people to see manufacturing and trade jobs as viable career options.

“Not all of today’s good jobs need a four-year degree.” The then-president said. “…I promise you, folks make a lot more – potentially – with the skilled trades and manufacturing than with an art history degree.”

“Nothing wrong with art history degree,” he added. “I love art history. I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.”

But the emails came, despite the president’s quick save. One art historian, Professor Ann Collins Johns from the University of Texas at Austin, wrote Obama via the White House website, intending to dispel some of the common misconceptions about art historians. Her message, Johns said, “was not so much one of outrage at Obama’s statement, but rather a ‘look what we do well’ statement.”

To Johns’ surprise, less than two weeks later, she received a handwritten response.

Obama Response

Source: UT News

The note read as follows:

Ann —

Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.

So please pass on my apology for the glib remark to the entire department, and understand that I was trying to encourage young people who may not be predisposed to a four year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama

Johns was thrilled by the apology letter. “What I did NOT expect is that THE MAN HIMSELF would write me an apology. So now I’m totally guilty about wasting his time,” she wrote on her Facebook profile page.

Takeaways:

  • Want to make your apology special? Write it by hand! Handwritten apologies are a great, personalized way to get your audience’s attention, and show someone that you care. They can humanize your brand and gain you loyal customers (or constituents!) for life.

JetBlue

We couldn’t have a list of the most epic public apologies without including JetBlue’s response to the Valentine’s Day crisis.

It was Valentine’s day at New York’s JFK airport. The icy winter storm that was brewing outside was forecasted to change to rain – a prediction which led JetBlue to continue to load flights and allow them to wait for takeoff on the runway. What was supposed to be a short delay grew exponentially, and passengers on 9 grounded planes found themselves in limbo for 6 hours or more.

That day, only 17 of JetBlue’s 156 scheduled flights left JFK. Over the next five days about 1,000 flights were cancelled as the company scrambled to recover. Pilots, crew, and aircraft had been displaced by the storm, and thousands of customers had been left frustrated and flightless.

Founder and CEO of JetBlue David Neeleman was “humiliated and mortified” by the breakdown in operations, and promised that change and reparations were in the works. The country was waiting for a solution, and he knew he’d have to deliver. “I can flap my lips all I want,” Neeleman said. “Talk is cheap. Watch us.”

The apology that followed has been regarded by several case studies as one of the best examples of an apology letter to customers:

Dear JetBlue Customers,

We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry.

Last week was the worst operational week in JetBlue’s seven year history. As a customer scheduled to be on one of our flights during this period, we know we let you down. Following the severe winter ice storm in the Northeast, we subjected you to unacceptable delays, flight cancellations, lost baggage, and other major inconveniences. The storm disrupted the movement of aircraft, and, more importantly, disrupted the movement of JetBlue’s pilot and inflight crewmembers who were depending on those planes to get them to the airports where they were scheduled to serve you. With the busy President’s Day weekend upon us, rebooking opportunities were scarce and hold times at 1-800-JETBLUE were unacceptably long or not even available, further hindering our recovery efforts.

Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that you experienced. This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us. We know we failed to deliver on this promise to you last week.

We have begun implementing immediate corrective steps to regain your confidence in us as part of a comprehensive plan to provide better and more timely information to you, more tools and resources for our crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties in the future. We are confident, as a result of these actions, that JetBlue will emerge as a more reliable and even more customer responsive airline than ever before.

Most importantly, we have published the JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Rights—our official commitment to you of how we will handle operational interruptions going forward—including details of compensation. I have a video message to share with you about this industry leading action.

You deserved better—a lot better—from us last week. Nothing is more important than regaining your trust and all of us here hope you will give us the opportunity to once again welcome you onboard and provide you the positive JetBlue Experience you have come to expect from us.

Sincerely,

David Neeleman
Founder and CEO JetBlue Airways

This apology letter started with a sincere, human apology. It went on to explain – not excuse – what had happened, and conveyed deep empathy for the customers who had been affected. The letter reminded the customer of the company’s mission statement, and discussed a plan to make reparations and avoid a repeat scenario. The final paragraphs reestablished JetBlue as an industry leader, and stated the airline’s ultimate attention: to win back its customers’ trust.

The video that Neeleman followed up with went more in depth, outlining his 7 and 30-day plan for the airline.

And, Neeleman put his money where his mouth was by introducing the JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Rights – a document that outlined the monetary compensation that customers will receive should their flight be delayed in the future.

Takeaways:

  • Clarify, don’t excuse. When disaster strikes, customers may not know the full story until you tell them. When writing an apology letter, it’s important to clarify what caused the problem without using that explanation as an excuse.
  • Try a multi-media apology. JetBlue CEO David Neeleman used multiple methods of addressing his audience following the Valentine’s Day crisis, including an apology letter, a video, and a manifesto. This is a great tactic for covering all of your bases, especially if you need to address different audiences (ex. Customers who were directly affected vs the general public).
  • Say you’re sorry, don’t apologize. Often, companies will skirt around saying I’m sorry, and opt either for the more formal “I apologize,” or the even more removed, “I regret.” However, saying that you’re sorry humanizes your brand, and helps your apology letter resonate with your audience. As psychologist Dr. Lerner says, “‘I’m sorry’ are the two most healing words in the English language.” Use them!

O.B. Tampons

In the fall of 2010, a popular brand of tampon in the O.B. line was taken off the shelves due to a temporary supply interruption. The brand’s loyal customers were furious. Some drove long distances to buy what few boxes remained in stock, while others went to eBay.ca, where the “Buy Now price was listed in excess of $100.

Meanwhile, the brand’s parent company, Johnson & Johnson, was working to bring the product back. “I think we underestimated the degree of loyalty for that [particular O.B. product],” said Shelley Kohut, Canadian spokeswoman for the U.S. consumer giant.

While the wider O.B line came back in the spring, consumers had already made petitions calling for a boycott of all Johnson & Johnson products.

Johnson & Johnson did what they do best: they apologized, this time, musically.

musical apology

Source: YouTube

65,010 women on the O.B. database received an email, connecting them to their own personal apology video.

The video began with an attractive man playing a white piano by the beach, and whispering the customer’s name (In this example video, the name is “Jenna”).

“Jenna…
I know we went away,
and let you down.

Jenna…
Believe me when I say,
we wanna turn this thing around.”

As the singing continued, a heavily personalized video unfolded. The customer’s name was used throughout the whole song, and incorporated visually in various personalized apologetic gestures.

Personalized apologetic gestures for Jenna

Source: YouTube

Personalized apologetic gestures for Jenna

Source: YouTube

Personalized apologetic gestures for Jenna

Source: YouTube

At the end of the video was a link to a coupon, and another link to share the video on Facebook.

Personalized apology

Source: YouTube

The apology video covered about 1000 distinct female names, and received an overwhelmingly positive response from customers. Women flocked to the site to see their own videos, and within the first 10 days alone in Canada, it had garnered almost 600,000 unique views.

This creative apology was a far cry away from Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol apology of 1982, but it followed the same credo of putting the customer first (while also getting a unique, catchy song stuck in their head!).

Takeaways:

  • Collaborate with other companies for the perfect apology. Johnson & Johnson worked alongside advertising company Lowe Roche of Toronto and sound production company Keen Music to produce the perfect musical apology letter.
  • Personalize, personalize, personalize. People love it when things are about them. The personalization of the video is part of what made this public apology so successful, and so sharable.
  • Be creative with your apologies. Not interested writing another dry, corporate apology letter? Have fun with your apology and get creative!
  • Appeal to your demographic. Like advertising, apologizing is also about appealing to your demographic. By using the cliché of a romantic apology, O.B. created an engaging, fun video that their female demographic loved.

The Train that Left 20 Seconds Early

While apologies are an important form of social exchange worldwide, what people expect from public apologies differs from country to country.

Perhaps no country has mastered the art of the apology quite like Japan.

Japan has previously been described as the “apologetic society par excellence.” That’s because, as Nicholas Tavuchis writes in his book, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, “The miraculous properties of apology and exquisite nuances of the offender-offended nexus are perhaps nowhere more clearly delineated than in Japan.”

Which leads us to our next apology letter, where a Japanese Railway company formally apologized for a train that left 20 seconds ahead of schedule. The apology letter, which was short and sweet, read as follows:

On November 14, at approximately 9:44 a.m., a northbound Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company (main office in Tokyo, Chiyoda Ward, President & CEO Koichi Yugi) train left Minami Nagareyama Station roughly 20 seconds earlier than the time indicated on the timetable. We deeply apologize for the severe inconvenience imposed upon our customers.

Internet users around the world responded favorably, some relaying their own experience with transportation customer service in other countries, and expressing their admiration of the company for its apology.

Some western users were surprised by this apology; others praised it, sharing stories of their own bad experiences with western transportation companies.

One person tweeted: “Tokyo train company’s apology for 20-second-early departure is one of the best things about Japan.”

Another wrote: “I once had an Israeli bus driver laugh at me after he closed the door on my hips and drove off with my legs hanging out of the bus. I am so envious of Japan right now.”

“I don’t think the UK has ever had a train leave on time!” commented a UK user. “The words duty and professionalism are meaningless to our private rail companies. The only words they understand are profit and misery. Shame on them.”

This isn’t the first time that a Japanese corporation has apologized for something seemingly so small – last year, a candy company released a formal apology over a 9 cent price increase. As one commentator put it, “The makers of Japan’s famous ice candy Garigari-kun released an ad apologizing for a 9-cent price increase, and I still haven’t heard jack from my insurance company.”

Takeaways:

  • Sometimes it’s better to apologize for something small than it is to not apologize at all. You too can satisfy your customers, and make customers from other countries envious.
  • Be sure that your apology matches, or exceeds, your audiences’ expectations. When conducting international business, be sure that you are aware of the cultural expectations surrounding apologies, and that you are respecting and meeting those expectations rather than falling short.
  • Apologize proactively. The fact that no one had yet complained about this train’s tardiness made this railway company’s apology that much more impressive.

Bill Clinton

If you’re caught cheating on your partner, it’s safe to say that you should apologize to your significant other.

However, if you are president of the United States, you may need to apologize to an entire country.

On August 17th, 1998, Bill Clinton finally apologized for what the public had suspected all along: his “inappropriate” relations with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

“I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong,” the president said.

“I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”

After months of denying allegations, Clinton had hoped that his public apology would finally begin the long process of getting the matter out of the national spotlight.

But this apology wouldn’t be his last. As the Charleston Daily Mail put it: “President Clinton has told the American people too little too late. Months of lying, of stonewalling, of trying to shift the blame and of spinning the truth have damaged his credibility beyond repair.”

As part of his apology tour, Clinton publicly apologized at least half a dozen times for the affair, hoping to restore some of his credibility. “I’m having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness,” he noted.

On September 11, 1998, after several smaller-scale re-apologies, Clinton delivered what is considered his successful mea culpa for the Lewinsky affair before more than 100 religious leaders and his wife at the White House’s annual prayer breakfast. Clinton told his audience that he had a “broken spirit.”

“I have been on quite a journey these last few weeks to get to the end of this, to the rock-bottom truth of where I am,” Clinton said in his most emotional and dramatic statement since the affair with Lewinsky became public. “I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned.”

“I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified that I was not contrite enough,” he told the audience. “It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine. First and most important, my family, my friends, my staff, my cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness.”

This speech marked the first time that the president had publically apologized to Lewinsky.

“I have repented,” Clinton said. “I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be. A willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek. A renunciation of the pride and the anger, which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.”

This time, Clinton followed up his apology with a plan of action: saying that he would continue to lead the country, but would also seek “pastoral” help to repair the damage his recent conduct has wrought.

Takeaways:

  • Denying wrongdoing the first time can damage your credibility. Before apologizing, Clinton outright denied any wrongdoing with the now famous quote: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Denial can damage your personal (or brand) credibility, even if you do admit and apologize afterwards, and can affect how long your audience will take to believe or forgive you.
  • Constituents (or customers) don’t care about the technicalities that protect you. One of the problems with Clinton’s first speech was the way he tried to defend himself with legal wording. This was reasonable, given the fact that he was being legally investigated, however it did not sit well with citizens. As the Phoenix Tribune said: “Spare us further insults to our intelligence and to our dignity from the legal maneuvering, semantic gymnastics and televised appeals. The seduction has gone on long enough.”
  • Don’t play the victim. In his first speech, Clinton played the victim who was just trying to protect his family, saying that this investigation “This has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people.” By the September 11th speech, he was humbled and sorrowful for everyone involved, not just himself.

Steve Jobs “Antennagate”

When Apple introduced its iPhone 4, reports began surfacing that the phone’s built-in antenna caused reception issues. The problem occurred when a hand or finger covered the antenna area on the side of the iPhone, causing it to lose signal strength.

The stories of the malfunctioning device spread like wildfire, and the topic of dropped calls and poor reception became hotter than the iPhone itself. This “scandal” came to be called “Antennagate.”

Initially, Apple denied the allegations, and even responded by saying, “just avoid holding it that way” — a phrase which led to widespread mockery, and reaffirmed Apple’s arrogant image.

Eventually, Steve Jobs decided to hold a press conference regarding the issue. The press conference opened with a tacky fan-made YouTube video that mocked and downplayed the concern over the issue. However, in this case, all roads lead to Rome. Eventually Jobs apologized for the iPhone’s antenna problem, telling the public: “We’re not perfect… but we want all our users to be happy.”

Jobs continued to compare the iPhone’s performance favorably to that of its competitors. He noted how many iPhones had already been sold (3 million), how few customers had complained (just 0.55% of buyers), and that fewer than 2% of people had returned their iPhone 4.

“There is a problem,” Jobs admitted, after speaking extensively about his team’s thorough investigation. “But that problem is affecting a very small percentage of users … Having said this, we care about every user. And we’re not going to stop until every one of them is happy.”

“There is a problem,” Jobs admitted, after speaking extensively about his team’s thorough investigation. “But that problem is affecting a very small percentage of users … Having said this, we care about every user. And we’re not going to stop until every one of them is happy.”

Finally, he shared what Apple was going to do about it: (1) They had released software update, which supposedly fixed some bugs. (2) Apple offered to give every iPhone 4 a free case – or a refund if they had already bought a case. This didn’t mean only Apple cases – they would also allow users to pick cases from different suppliers (“You’ll pick a case, and we’ll send it off to you”). (3) Apple told customers they could return the iPhone 4 for a full refund if they still were not happy with the product (“We are going to take care of everyone. We want every user to be happy. And if they’re not, we’ll give them a full refund”).

“This is life in the smartphone world. Phones aren’t perfect.” Jobs said, arguing that this was a challenge for the entire industry, not just Apple.

Takeaways:

  • Apologies can sell. Depending on what sort of PR issue you are dealing with, apologies can be a great platform for dispelling rumors, and boosting your product.
  • Apologies tell stories: control your narrative. During his apology, Jobs told a story that lit Apple, Jobs, and the company’s employees in a favorable light. By controlling the narrative, he helped control what the audience saw.
  • Emotional appeals aren’t for everyone. Sometimes, you may think that your customers are overreacting to an issue. If you aren’t actually sorry for something (or, if the issue just doesn’t call for you to be sorry), then don’t make an emotional appeal – it will come off as insincere. In this example, Jobs’ logical appeal (coupled with his logical solution) was exactly what customers and the press needed to hear.

Innocent

A few years ago, Innocent, a UK beverage company, sent out a coupon with the wrong barcode attached, making it impossible to redeem. The company followed up with an apology email, which read as follows:

Hello.

We’ve been foolish. We recently sent you an Easter card with a voucher worth £2.99 on the inside page. We accidentally put the wrong barcode on that voucher. We’re so sorry.

If you’ve not used that voucher already, please don’t. We’re getting another voucher in the post to you as we speak (one that does work), so please use this voucher instead. It will give you a savings of £2.99 off any innocent drink. The one in your card doesn’t, but you can keep it as a memento of our stupidity if you like.

Yours, tail between legs,
Innocent

This apology letter was successful in several ways. It used a bit of self-deprecation to make its customers laugh. The solution that it offered its customers for the non-functional coupon was both practical (sending them a new coupon) and creative (the invitation to keep the current one as a memento of the brand’s stupidity). Customers who may not have realized that they had even gotten a coupon in the mail were alerted to the fact that they would get a new one, and could begin to plan on spending it.

Takeaways:

  • Apologize on-brand. Innocent’s apology came off as… well, innocent. The use of word choice – such as “foolish,” and “yours, tail between legs,” – was on-brand and communicated the company’s voice effectively.
  • Use humor in your apology. Humor (especially self-deprecating humor in the case of an apology letter) can be an extremely effective strategy for diffusing customer frustrations with your company.

The Twitterpology

As Domino’s Patrick Doyle learned, social media has changed the apology letter, and the public apology landscape. The ever-rising presence of brands on Twitter has popularized a growing phenomenon: the Twitterpology.

The idea of the Twitterpology is simple: keep it short and sweet.

Take for example, the time that Taylor Swift wrote an open letter to Apple complaining that Apple’s streaming service took advantage of musicians by not paying them for songs that customers listen to during their trial period.

Apple’s response was short and sweet:

Apple Twitter Apology

Source: Fortune

The apology was short – and more a declaration of policy change than an actual apology. But, it was exactly what customers and musicians wanted to hear.

Another, more recent example, is a Twitterpology from Papa John’s. After CEO John Schnatter accused the recent NFL protests of hurting the company’s sales, the chain received massive backlash from consumers. But it got worse for Papa John’s – the franchise received praise from the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that ended up giving them the title of “the official pizza of the alt-right.”

Papa John’s took to Twitter in an effort to recover:

Apple Twitter Apology

Source: Papa John’s Twitter

Unfortunately, the message fell flat. The inconsistency between the Twitter apology and the CEO’s original message was too much for customers, who continued to bash the brand online. Unlike Apple’s tweet, Papa Johns’ solution did not impress the public, and the brand has yet to recover.

Takeaways:

  • Know when and how to use the Twitterpology. If your CEO or another important member of your brand says something to offend customers, then it’s probably best that they make a public apology or write an apology letter, rather than let a social media rep Tweet how sorry they are.
  • Even on Twitter, offer a real, tangible solution going forward. Apple offered a solution through immediate action, and policy change.
  • Polar politics can be make life hard on brands. Try to avoid any neo-Nazi associations; they’re hard to unstick.

Conclusion

To make a quality apology, you need to do 4 things: (1) Identify what you did wrong; (2) Say you’re sorry; (3) Follow up with a plan of action; (4) Don’t do it (or let it happen) again.

We hope you will use the famous apology examples and the takeaways above to deliver the perfect apology to your customers.

For more reading, check out our blog post, How to Apologize to Customers Effectively.

What are your all-time favorite famous public apologies and/or apology letters? Let us know in the comments below!

social media customer service guide

[Free Download] The Definitive Guide to Social Media Customer Service

Social media plays a significant role in today’s business world, not only in customer service, but in marketing and sales. This guide provides you with every possible consideration for your social media customer service.
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Isabella is a freelance editor, writer, and blogger with Comm100. She is passionate about helping people, teams, and organizations grow into their full potential, and excel in their service. In her spare time, you can find her traveling, painting, or drinking copious amounts of coconut water. Connect with Isabella on LinkedIn.

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