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A series of Meaningless Apologies

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The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It
Cary Cooper
Sean O'Meara
Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 5 minuuttia.

Saying sorry and asking for forgiveness is an essential human ritual. We all say sorry. It indicates that we can tell when we’ve done something wrong, and that we’re able to take responsibility and even try fix what’s been ruined. That’s why every major religion includes acts of repentance, and parents go to such great lengths to teach their toddlers to apologize as soon as they can speak. It is an invaluable part of what allows us to live together in communities. Basically sorry is social glue.

Nowadays, apologies are being issued so frequently that they’ve completely lost their value. We say sorry even when we’re being sarcastic, often, apologies are being formulated so evasively by lawyers and PR teams that they’re excuses or defenses dressed up as an apology. Especially now that we have what we call “cancel culture” on Twitter (X now), we see celebrities issuing apologies every single day, which makes the word sorry just like any other word out there. Question becomes: Will we ever be able to reclaim the power of a good apology?

Well, one very interesting statistics I recently discovered while reading about apologies in the business world; was regarding American Airlines, actually during the first few months of 2014, American Airlines apologized to customers an astonishing 200 times per day. You might think that they were in the midst of a huge crisis, but things were going smoothly. Funny enough, they were apologizing for minor grievances such as delays and meals that weren’t to customers’ satisfaction.

Industries like airlines, taxi services, and supermarkets are especially sensitive to customer complaints because it’s very easy for a customer to change companies if they’re unhappy. If you book a Ryanair flight and then get angry about not being able to check your pet in, you can always try your luck with easyJet instead. But if you get annoyed with your bank, you’ll have to go through a ridiculous amount of paperwork in order to change. That means “high friction” industries like banks and telecom companies invest a lot less energy in customer service, while “low friction” ones, like airlines, have to work very hard to keep you as a customer.

The thing is, platforms like Instagram and Twitter give companies a way to directly interact with their customers, which can have humongous advantages for strengthening their brands. But on the other side, it gives customers a perfect platform to “name and shame” and cancel corporations with whom they had unpleasant experiences. To appease such customers, corporations have taken to apologizing all the time, and it’s actually made the act of saying sorry lose its meaning. If a company employs a strategy of tactical appeasement in response to every complaint, it weakens the legitimacy of genuine apologies.


On a cold winter day in 2018, in a similar scenario to the endless broken iceream machine excuse at McDonalds, hungry British families lined up at KFC for a serving of the company’s famous chicken, only to be told that the store had completely run out! More than half of UK branches had run out of the crucial ingredient, and had to summarily close their doors.


Customers were a little grumpy, but their faith in the chain wasn’t shaken. It goes even further, when KFC ran an ad saying “FCK, we’re sorry,” customers laughed along and put the incident behind them. Everyone understands that logistics occasionally don’t go as planned. But hey, that was an operational failure, the steps to put it right are quite clear and simple: Stock up on chicken, apologize for the lapse, and move on. More problematic is what’s known as cultural failures, which relate to the core values of a company.

Today, many brands promise not only to provide goods and services but also to be committed to social causes. In some cases, brands actually follow through on their social commitments. For example, the famous ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s has been donating 1 percent of profits to social causes for many years. They also have transparent supply chains and invest in the environment. They precisely put their money where their mouths are, which gives them credibility with customers. But for many other brands, aligning with social causes is more a superficial marketing plot than a sincere commitment. When Pepsi positioned itself as the drink of activists, in the Live For Now, 2017 Ad featuring Kendall Jenner. They were setting themselves up for intense scrutiny of their marketing campaigns and operations. This is because their promises are all about the way the public will perceive their words or actions instead of substance, and when a customer spots a mismatch between their social commitments and actual practices, they stumble into the cultural failure wall, which is very hard to fix. So, they’re forced to apologize over and over again. Instead of promising us the world and then running to disappoint us, companies should change their marketing to reflect who they really are: businesses that want to make money in return for providing goods or services. This is a strategy soft drink brand Oasis has used with much success. They don’t promise to help unite families or make you like your body. But they do guarantee they’ll give you a refreshing drink, a promise they can actually deliver on. As simple as it sounds.


The cast of La La Land had a few seconds of pure euphoria when they ”won” the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017. But euphoria turned to disbelief when it was revealed that they hadn’t won it at all; Moonlight was the true recipient. The organizers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, had bungled the envelopes with the winner’s names. Next day PwC released a statement and it went something like this: “We apologize…for the error that was made.” At first, it might sound like PwC was taking responsibility. But by using the passive voice, they were sneakily trying to squirm out of doing just that.

Actually corporate apologies are famous for being full of these kinds of linguistic gymnastics. One corporate strategy is to use euphemisms to try to make a situation look better than it actually is. Lots of sugar coating involved. For example, when a video surfaced of a United Airlines passenger who was violently removed from his chair on an airplane, the CEO made the situation much worse when he said the airline had needed  to “re-accommodate a passenger.” This description was so out of touch with reality that it made the controversy around the incident much larger and caused internet commentators to boil with rage.

Understatement is only one linguistic trick used by corporate PR teams. Another is to subtly cast doubt on the victim’s version of events by using evasive language. For example, when it was revealed that couple of Canadian parents had lost custody of their children on the basis of flawed drug tests performed on strands of hair, the laboratory, Motherisk, apologized only that the families “feel they may have been impacted in some negative way.” That slippery formulation makes it seem that the damage is a feeling, rather than a catastrophic reality that Motherisk needs to be held accountable for. This only does a very terrible disservice to the victims. All effective apologies are predicated on the guilty party acknowledging and then taking full responsibility for what happened. Only then can they ask for forgiveness. By using these kind of slippery languages, corporate apologies have become empty defensive statements, rather than true expressions of remorse.


When complainining about a company, we think that we are talking about an abstract, faceless entity. But really, behind any organization’s PR strategy there’s a team of real people, and they’re often questioning their whole life’s decisions on the receiving end of a negative social media campaign. When you have thousands of angry tweets accusing your company of the worst possible things and threatening a boycott, it can be easy to panic and try to do anything to please them. But a corporation needs to keep a sense of perspective and be able to tell the difference between the feelings of its actual client base and its social media following. The loudest voices on Twitter may not actually be the people who buy its products. In short: Sometimes it’s better not to apologize at all.




The Apology Impulse: How the Business World Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It. C. Cooper, S, O’Meara. Kogan Page. 2019

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