Brands should be sincere and strategic when saying sorry

Apologizing for public gaffes with self-effacing humor can work wonders

There are two prevailing schools of thought on apologies. The first, and most common, is that brands, corporate entities, and public figures should say sorry for just about any real or perceived slight that could have an effect on a bottom line, approval rating, or brand index.

Thus, the neverending drone of boilerplate mea culpas with all the personality of a customer service message from a bot, rendering the actual apology meaningless.

The other, increasingly common modus operandi is to not apologize at all, ever, even if an unforgivable act has been committed, because it would show weakness and result in more demands for apologies.

A better piece of advice is when you’re in a hole, the first step to getting out is to stop digging.

There’s a third, much more effective strategy: apologizing sincerely — and strategically. Before a weekend in November, few experts would have cited Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson as an expert on crisis comms.

That was before his heartfelt apology to veteran and newly elected congressman Dan Crenshaw, who lost an eye in Afghanistan, and was the victim of an ill-considered joke by Davidson the week prior.

Of course, Davidson didn’t just apologize. He also had to be willing to be the butt of a few jokes about his appearance and bad romantic luck before the two delivered a Veterans Day message. It worked both as an apology for Davidson and a profile-raiser for Crenshaw.

A bad joke is one thing, but it’s hard to imagine something as unforgivable as a chicken joint running out of chicken.

That’s what happened to KFC early this year in the U.K. and Ireland, resulting not only in its reputation being burnt but also a hit to its bottom line. However, the brand stepped up, took responsibility, and ran an apology ad in U.K. newspapers that won it praise from both the usually cynical agency world and judges at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Again, self-effacing humor was key as it realigned its brand name to spell out "FCK" across a bucket in the highly acclaimed print ad.

Apologies for the language, but that’s how brands should say they’re sorry.

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