Three Tips to Bolster Crisis Apologies on Social

United Airlines

Mistakes happen, but when they play out on social media, the reputational damage can be wide reaching and hard to contain. A willingness to take responsibility for possible errors can go a long way toward rebuilding trust. All apologies are not equal, though.

Here are some rules for social media apologies:

Rule #1: Don’t let your CEO tweet the first apology (at least not without feedback). One word: United. While Oscar Munoz had the right impulse to respond quickly, there always are unintended consequences. When faced with difficult questions or allegations, defensiveness often is the most common response. But when this scene plays out on a public stage, constant rebuttals and trading insults only incite and prolong media coverage.

A corollary: Make sure the apology is real. Never, “I’m sorry that I made you feel that way,” or worse, “It was not my intention to….”

And avoid leading your apology with an attempt to score points for your brand. Some #MeToo apologies began that way. And don't use an apology to divert attention. If your intention is to apologize, apologize.

Lacking compassion or empathy can be the quickest way to anger an audience and lose brand credibility. Note: your first response is critical because it colors all that follow. If initial comments sound hollow and self-serving, future statements may seem dishonest.

Rule #2Video can be your best friend. Remember Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP? His example in the days following the Gulf oil spill stands the test of time for how offensive a lack of compassion can be (“No one wants their life back more than me”). But Hayward’s worst moments remind us of the power of video. Authenticity and accountability come through best in this medium. Make sure key leaders (and not just PR) are comfortable on video. Your spokesperson should be able to:

  • Show empathy
  • Use tonal inflection to support key points
  • Demonstrate confidence
  • Speak in short, impactful statements

Establishing a communications team with the equipment and ability to quickly record and post high-quality videos is helpful. An alternative is to create relationships with freelance videographers. Facebook and Twitter prioritize video.

Rule #3Don’t assume you can rip off the Band-aid.  Address major issues quickly, comprehensively and compassionately. But let the proverbial wounds heal with time. Apologize via video or online once.

Maintaining credibility during a crisis requires transparency. Most organizations fail here. The public and employees expect honesty.

You are unlikely to know every detail of a crisis initially, but acknowledging what you know and where you will go from there can go a long way toward preserving trust.

Create an online hub to disseminate information. Anticipating questions and concerns before a crisis will help.

When sharing information:

  • Determine what can be shared publicly
  • Be certain audiences receive details in an appropriate manner and as part of an orchestrated cascade of information
  • Assure comments about shortcomings are coupled with clear steps for improvement

Moving forward includes monitoring online conversations and directing people to the original apology or factual information that you posted.

Ultimately, whether you are communicating through traditional means or social media, it’s about more than saying you are sorry. Organizations must demonstrate an understanding of what and where things went wrong and accept at least part of the responsibility. Without this fuller picture, apologies can feel hollow.

The right amount of transparency can demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the issue, as well as the impact a crisis has had on stakeholders. Companies are reluctant to take responsibility, of course, as they fear litigation. But countless studies about apology and medical malpractice show doctors who apologize and pledge change are less likely to face legal action.

Remember that sticking by corporate and personal values can create a winning situation out of a difficult one.

Diana Pisciotta is president of Denterlein