The 9 features of an effective apology

It’s not easy to apologise.

People often find ‘sorry’ to be the hardest word to say so you can understand why brands might struggle.

But corporate apologies are being issued with increasing regularity. If we look back at 2018, Facebook, Pret A Manger, H&M, British Airways and KFC were just some of the household names which issued apologies after finding themselves in crisis media management situations.

The problem is that many of the apologies issued by organisations fall some way short of the mark and don’t deliver the desired impact.

So we have decided to outline the 9 features of an effective corporate apology:


Should brands apologise when they do something wrong?

Probably one of the most important factors in a corporate apology is to question whether you do actually need to say sorry at all.

The rise of social media seems to have caused brands to apologise with increasing regularity.

And while there are obviously times where this is absolutely the right thing to do, there are other occasions where it feels like a default option deployed too quickly to put a stop to the furious tapping of the keyboard warriors.

Not only can that lead to robotic sounding apologies, but constantly saying sorry also suggests that the company doesn’t really care and can contribute to reputational damage.

So question whether you do need to say sorry and remember that apologies should be reserved for when an organisation has done something it really regrets or when something has gone terribly wrong.

Has 'sorry' become an overused word? 



If you are going to apologise you need to move quickly.

In fact, the faster you respond the more control you will have over a story.

This is particularly true on social media where reputations can very quickly become battered and bruised when something has gone wrong.

That noise will not go away, so get on the front foot, show you are aware of the situation and that you are taking it seriously.




You may want to apologise, but what happens if the legal team is advising you to stay schtum?

Apologising is sometimes seen as accepting liability and organisations adopt a strategy of radio silence for fear of saying something damaging.

But in reality this approach can cause almost as much reputational and commercial damage as saying too much.

Brands can express sympathy, confirm they are launching an investigation and try to put an incident into context without making themselves a hostage to fortune.

The Apology Clause campaign says brands should not fear admitting liability when saying sorry. It points to the Compensation Act 2006 which says that: “an apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not itself amount to an admission of negligence of statutory duty.”

How to manage the media when your legal team advises you to stay schtum



When you say sorry you need to make sure it sounds like you really mean it. It must feel genuine and sincere.

Phrases like ‘we apologise for any inconvenience caused’, ‘we’re sorry if we offended anyone’, or ‘we take this matter extremely seriously’, all sound half-hearted, scripted and robotic.

It makes it appear like something an organisation feels it should say, rather than something it genuinely believes.

Puma produced an example of this last year. Having been accused of glamorising drug culture in one of its campaigns, it said it regretted ‘any misunderstandings’ and added “We apologise for any upset or offence caused in the usage of this language.”

This doesn’t sound particularly meaningful or like the sports clothing manufacturer was really sorry at all.

An effective apology needs to reflect sincerity, honesty and empathy if it is going to resonate.



One of the best ways to ensure apologies sound sincere is to adopt a human tone.

Ditch the corporate language. If the apology takes the form of a statement, make it sound like there is a person behind it rather than a collection of lawyers and advisers.

If it takes the form of a media interview, be brave and trust your spokespeople to put messaging in their own words.

The more human and natural an apology sounds, the more it will resonate with your customers.  

Why this was a great apology



When something has gone wrong and an organisation finds itself in a crisis media management incident, its customers want to know what action is being taken to resolve the issue and to prevent it from happening again.

Even in the initial stages, it is important to outline what is being done to deal with the crisis. You need to show that it is all hands on deck.

When Cathay Pacific found itself at the centre of a data breach crisis in October, one of the better parts of its response was the details it included on the action it had taken. We were told that a ‘thorough investigation’ had been launched with the assistance of a leading cyber security firm and that it was in the process of contacting affected passengers.

There was plenty the airline got wrong in the handling of this incident, but this action part is pretty strong.

Airline breaks golden rule of crisis communications



A regular failing that we see in corporate apologies is that they use very vague language and it can make them appear evasive and defensive.

Starbucks did plenty right with its response when it found itself at the centre of a race storm. But its initial statement was packed with phrases like ‘these matters’ and ‘incidents’ rather than any mention of race.

When United Airlines found itself in crisis media management mode after footage emerged of a bloodied passenger being pulled off one of its flights, it used the word ‘re-accommodate’ to describe what had happened (physically removing a passenger from his seat).

For an apology to work it really needs to acknowledge what the problem is rather than try to talk around it – or play it down - with meaningless phrases.




Reassurance is closely linked to the ‘action’ part of an apology.

People want to feel reassured that what has happened is a one off and can’t be repeated.

In some situations you may be able to refer to safety protocols you have in place or a previously good record.

This was something Merlin Entertainment and its chief executive Nick Varney did regularly when managing its response to a serious crash on a rollercoaster at Alton Towers.

Varney shows how to survive hostile interview



An effective apology takes full ownership and responsibility for what has gone wrong.

Often we see brands apologise in such a way that they try to deflect some of the blame or fault on to others.

But the blame game is dangerous. Customers do not want to hear it and it has the potential to make a crisis much worse.

Without taking responsibility for what has happened, any form of explanation offered in an apology just looks like an excuse.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our practical crisis communication training.


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