What can you learn from the apology that went viral?

Apologies are tricky.

Regular readers of our crisis communication and social media training blogs will know there have been plenty of recent examples of apologies that have fallen short of the mark.

But a recent one caught our attention for the right reasons.

And we were not the only ones.

At the time of writing, it has amassed 23,000 retweets, received 163,000 likes and attracted more than 6,600 comments after being posted on Twitter.

So, what made it so good? And what can others learn from it?

Well, the story centres on an email with a mysterious subject line. And which contained just one line of text.

The email was called ‘Integration Test Email #1’ and simply said: "This template is used by integration tests only."

The email was sent by streaming service HBO Max to its mailing list and quickly became the subject of attention on social media.

And the company responded with a tweet that generated massive social media traffic and mainstream media coverage.

It said: “We mistakenly sent out an empty test email to a portion of our HBO Max mailing list this evening.

“We apologize (SIC) for the inconvenience, and as the jokes pile in, yes, it was the intern.

“No, really. And we’re helping them through it.”

In a time of cancel culture and angry social media backlashes, the reaction to that tweet might feel a little surprising.

People replied by showing support for the intern and sharing their tales of workplace gaffes and how it had not held them back in their careers.

Even Monica Lewinsky, one of the most famous ever interns, following her affair with Bill Clinton, offered words of support.

And the interest in the story brought it to the attention of mainstream media.

HBO Max: Internet comes to interns rescue for accidental email USA Today

Twitter comforts the intern behind that mass HBO Max email Mashable

People hilariously empathise with 'The Intern' after HBO Max email snafu Huff Post

Pretty good coverage from a marketing email error.

Now, this style of apology is not going to work in every situation. But there are some key components here of a good apology that we discuss during our crisis communication and social media training courses.

Firstly, it apologised quickly. Yes, there was speculation building on social media about the email. But focus would have shifted to something else, and some organisations would have been tempted to ignore the issue and wait for interest to wane.

But by being transparent and quickly saying sorry it took control of the story and brought HBO Max to the attention of many more people.

The company also admitted it made a mistake and explained what had happened without sounding like it was trying to make excuses – something that is not as easy as it might look.

But most importantly, the apology sounds human. These are words a person might say, rather than something that feels like it has been constructed by a committee and sent around the leadership team for approval and sign-off.

And that, in turn, makes it feel genuine.

Organisations need to tread carefully with humour when they are apologising. As it can easily backfire. But the humour was well-judged here – poking fun at themselves - and fits neatly with the seriousness of the issue.

But I think the last line also deserves some attention. Saying that they are ‘helping the intern through the mistake’ creates the impression of a caring organisation where workers are supported.

And that is crucial at a time when work conditions, practices and cultures are increasingly put under the microscope.

However, it probably would not be a Media First blog without us identifying at least one thing that could have been done better.

And I don’t want to disappoint. I have to say I am not a fan of the “we apologise for the inconvenience” part of the apology. This tends to make apologies seem insincere.

It could and should have simply said “we’re sorry”. But it got away with it in this instance because of how well the rest of the apology was worded.

Well, it more than “got away with it” – it delivered a huge PR success.

And as someone who sends a few test marketing emails, I find that quite reassuring.


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Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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