Wholesale Forgiveness: Six Elements to an Effective Apology

March 11, 2020

When reading February’s issue of Costco Connection – yes, Costco has a print publication and yes, it contains some amazing editorial content – I discovered more than just what to buy at my favorite wholesaler! I also learned how “bulk” apologies given by public figures standing in front of a crowd are slowly making us terrible at saying “I’m sorry” and ultimately decrease our chances of receiving genuine forgiveness.

Anyone else remember when BP had a massive oil spill and their CEO offered this... "apology?"

In addition to learning how to give feedback, and how to receive feedback, we could also benefit from learning how to successfully apologize. 

If you ever find yourself in a sticky situation and need to deliver a genuine apology, here are six key elements, according to the Association for Psychological Science

  1. Express regret
  2. Explain what went wrong
  3. Acknowledge responsibility
  4. Declare repentance
  5. Offer to repair
  6. Request for forgiveness 

Are you surprised by this? I was. Six elements? SIX! Of these, researchers found that the most important is acknowledgement of responsibility. 

Taking a step back, consider how this apology would make you feel: “I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said.” Yikes! This non-apology is missing most of the elements listed above and as a result, lacks empathy and specificity (and the recipient is likely not going to forgive you). Let’s take a closer look at an apology from a CEO that did resonate. 

In 2018, Virgin Active South Africa came under fire when their advertising campaign edited out a deaf dancer’s hearing implant. How did CEO Richard Branson respond? Here’s a snippet from Virgin's press release:

"Saddened to learn about a Virgin Active South Africa advertising campaign that edited out Simone Botha Welgemoed’s hearing implant. 

I'm glad the Virgin Active team immediately removed the ad and re-ran the campaign using the original images, including Simone’s Cochlear implant. However, it was a foolish error. I know this does not remove the hurt caused by this mistake, but I’d like to add my personal apologies to Simone too…  

I have spoken to our senior team at Virgin Active South Africa, who had a positive heart-to-heart meeting with Simone and agreed to work with her around education on these important issues too. As they pointed out, photoshopping the image was absolutely not in line with Virgin’s values and our aim to make business a force for good. It will not happen again.”

Branson expressed regret, declared repentance, worked with his team to repair the damage and prevent the issue from arising again. What also stands out is how he used his platform to amplify the issue positively and advocate for change overall, which makes a true difference.

Looking for more company-specific examples of apologies – both good and bad? Check out The Public Apology Letter: 6 Brands That Nailed It (Hubspot) and Why Are Brands So Bad at Apologizing? (Vox)

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Lindsay McCleary

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