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How to apologise properly

A snarky non-apology only feeds the flames of a social media furore. Here's how to say sorry like you mean it.

Read time 5min 20sec
Bic's "empowering" Women's Day slogan probably brought Staedtler plenty of new customers.
Bic's "empowering" Women's Day slogan probably brought Staedtler plenty of new customers.

Every Women's Month sees an ungainly spike in allegedly well-meaning but thoughtless and derogatory social media campaigns.

Earlier this week, Bic's "act like a lady, think like a man" slogan made international news for its absurdity, not long after Marie Claire's ill-conceived #MCinhershoes campaign saw serial misogynist Gareth Cliff and accused partner abuser DJ Euphonik among a group of male celebrities stepping into high heels for a couple of minutes (what a sacrifice!) to proclaim their heartfelt solidarity with women who experience abuse.

To add insult to injury, these misguided campaigns are most often followed by a huffy, hollow non-apology, which more often than not causes even more offense to its audience.

Bic's initial apology, made via Facebook (and since deleted), was little more than a rebuttal of the inflammatory slogan, and Marie Claire could have saved itself a lot of head-hanging had it not spent so much time doggedly defending the barrage of bad decisions #MCinhershoes enshrined.

So let me take a few moments to explain to marketing and social media teams (and anyone else prone to social media blunders) how to apologise properly in the wake of an ill-considered social media campaign, because clearly these skills are in short supply - and I would be pleasantly surprised if another company didn't need them sometime soon: we're not even halfway through August, after all.

How to say sorry like you mean it

A social media apology is really just that: an apology. In formulating this message, it helps to think of how one might teach a small child to apologise: use a sincere tone, own up to your wrongdoing, express remorse for having hurt another person, and - especially important for marketing teams - explain what you will do to try not to make this mistake again. Apply this logic to social media apologies and note how many of them resemble an irritable child crossing their arms, rolling their eyes, and mumbling "sor-reee."

Here are some specific pointers for applying this thought process in a social media context.

Do not:

* Blame your audience for being offended. It is your responsibility as a professional media practitioner to communicate respectfully at all times and think carefully about what you are saying and how this could be interpreted. It is not your audience's responsibility to give you the benefit of the doubt - especially when media messages often serve as indicators of the unequal society they exist in.

* Try to correct your audience's interpretation by telling them how your message was meant to be interpreted. Communication is a two-way street, as it relies on audience interpretation to be effective. If a large portion of your audience has interpreted a message differently to how you have, it is likely they are drawing on a different set of perceptions and experiences you may not have been aware of. Telling your audience they "read your message wrong" not only denies or delegitimises their experiences, but is intolerant in demanding that everybody else see the world exactly the way you do.

Apply this logic to social media apologies and note how many of them resemble an irritable child crossing their arms, rolling their eyes, and mumbling "sor-reee."

* In fact, it's not necessary to explain what you were trying to say at all. What you were trying to say is a lot less relevant than the message you actually put across, especially if you are withdrawing it. In any case, audience members who think critically about the media they consume are likely to be aware of what you were trying to say. Good intentions do not cancel out bad consequences, no matter how accidental they may have been.

* Dismiss your blunder as "poorly worded". It's an offensive message, not a spelling error.

* Try to justify a controversial campaign as a "conversation starter" if your contribution to this conversation is a disrespectful one.

Do:

* Acknowledge you were wrong. If you don't do this, it's not actually an apology.

* Acknowledge who you offended. If your message was offensive to specific groups of people, for example survivors of abuse, apologise to them specifically. This goes a long way in showing you care about them particularly - a fact you have thrown into heavy doubt of late.

* Explain why your message was ill thought-out. This shows your audience, and especially the people you offended, that you actually understand what you did wrong, and are not simply paying lip service to save face.

* If you don't immediately understand what you did wrong, post a short apology and tell your audience you are taking time to read through their comments and think through what they are saying - and then do this.

* Explain what you have learnt from your mistake. Not only does this show your apology is sincere, but it can put a positive spin on your audience's negative experience by demonstrating you are willing to listen to them and their concerns.

* State what you are doing to avoid making a similar mistake in the future, as this will not only help you establish how to avoid this in your own mind, but communicate that you are actively addressing the oversights or prejudices that led to this, rather than simply apologising for them after the fact.

* For bonus points, follow up your apology with a LinkedIn listing for new marketers or social media managers... (kidding).

More often than not, an acerbic non-apology will only serve to attract more attention, derision and scorn to a brand people are already gleefully mocking all over the Internet.

The sooner you can offer a sincere, considered apology, the more respect you can salvage and the more likely your audience is to believe your claims that you care about them (and not just their money).

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