Mixed Signals: How to Make a Proper Apology

Mixed Signals is Erin Straza’s weekly musing about marketing miscellany in advertising, branding, and messaging.

We’ve heard plenty of public apologies recently. First was Rush Limbaugh. Then Ann Rosen. Now Mitt Romney. Each one tried to own-up to erroneous attitudes, comments, and behaviors by crafting a statement of regret and releasing it for the world to read, analyze, and judge.

Why is it that these public statements tend to fall flat on our ears? And why do they rarely touch the heart deeply enough to elicit our acceptance and forgiveness? There is something amiss, but what is it?

A friend of mine made me aware of another apology, one issued a few months ago by Johnson & Johnson, maker of o.b. feminine products. The apology comes after a rather lengthy supply disruption that had loyal customers scrambling to find other avenues for purchasing boxes of their favorite tampons. It’s reported that 40-count boxes sold on eBay for about $79. That’s some serious product love. And then the hate began pouring in. After some time, o.b. responded with this video apology—and this isn’t a mass apology. It calls you by your name. That’s right. Click over that link to get your personalized video, or watch this one made for Karina:

Now that’s a powerful apology! It’s creative (taking time, energy, and thought) and humorous (self-deprecation done right). And customer response has been overwhelmingly positive. Why is it so effective? According to Peacemaker Ministries, solid apologies include these seven elements:

  1. Address everyone involved (All those whom you affected)
  2. Avoid if, but, and maybe (Do not try to excuse your wrongs)
  3. Admit specifically (Both attitudes and actions)
  4. Acknowledge the hurt (Express sorrow for hurting someone)
  5. Accept the consequences (Such as making restitution)
  6. Alter your behavior (Change your attitudes and actions)
  7. Ask for forgiveness

o.b. covered all seven. The customizable video addresses everyone involved (1)—by name. No excuses (2) were made for the action that caused the offensive supply problem (3). They acknowledged (4) the hurt through an emotionally charged ballad. Restitution was offered via a product coupon (5). The supply problems have been resolved (6), and o.b. is asking customers to forgive the problem and come back into relationship again (7).

Another aspect that I see here is the proper use of media. o.b. used mass media to connect with those who were hurt, but the message was directed to those who were hurt. In the personal apology cases mentioned previously, these public figures used mass media to make statements to the public. It felt like reputation management rather than relationship restoration. And that is why such statements fall flat and are suspicious. If you need to make amends, you need to do so with that particular person first.

Learning to make a proper apology is one of those indispensable life skills that we all need but few of us were  trained to deliver appropriately. And for the believer, this skill is of even greater importance because it speaks to the power of God’s restorative love toward us that enables us to extend that out to others.

Maybe public figures could learn a thing or two from o.b. for their next public apology.

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  • Sherry

    Boys…just to give you some added insight about this product…they are typically $6 per box. So, the $79 ebay purchase price serves as an example of the passion women have for brands of such personal items such as this! No mixed signals here! But, might play the video again.

  • alice

    Funny, funny stuff…but true. We recently had a roundtable question at dinner like this with our kids, “What makes up a sincere apology?” It was a great discussion (and we had fun acting out what is NOT a sincere apology). Truly apologizing doesn’t include the words “if what I did caused offense,” (duh, of course it did) or “I’m sorry I did that, but…” However, it’s interesting how often I find myself saying those very things. Root cause? Pride, as always.

  • Geoffrey R.

    Erin,

    An excellent issue worth highlighting, and sadly the political manifestations you list are simply the latest examples of equivocal apologies. I was happy to see the list of seven you included; my father works for Peacemaker Ministries, so I know the good work they do. Number two on the list is especially significant in framing an apology, I feel, and heavily abused. An “if” apology is as good as no apology at all. In my own personal life (and especially my marriage), I have seen the need to grow by being specific and unequivocal when I apologize. It makes a difference, both in personal growth and in restoring fellowship and community.

    Geoffrey