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The Sorry State: why corporate apologies are the hardest words for copywriters

By Andrew Boulton

March 19, 2013 | 3 min read

In real life, ‘sorry’ is a doddle. “Sorry i’m late”. “Sorry I said rude things about your haircut.” “Sorry I hid a body in your wheelie bin” (actually, that one might be a bit beyond ‘sorry’).

But when it comes to making a very big and very public apology on behalf of a brand or business, choosing one’s words becomes a little more delicate.

This task therefore, naturally lands on the tear-stained desk of the copywriter. And rightly so, for the corporate apology is far more nuanced than an everyday admission of culpability and regret.

Understandably this year’s horse meat scandal has led to more than our usual share of corporate apology statements – Tesco’s press adverts in national newspapers and store leaflets being the most prominent.

Enough has been said already about the wording of the Tesco statement – many feeling that they were diverting from their own responsibility by turning attention towards the meat industry as a whole. While some felt this was a cynical act of diversion on their part, the fact remains that they are only a part of a problem that spreads far wider and deeper than an individual supermarket or supplier.

And while I understand the damage limitation attached to the Tesco statement (even a cursory reading reveals the consideration that has gone into every word) in my experience the apology statement should be a matter of conciliation more than explanation.

In the apology statements I have had to write, my approach has always been a simple three stage process. One, make the fullest admission of responsibility possible. Two, apologise in the most sincere and straightforward terms. And three, make transparent and unequivocal promises to improve behaviour.

As you may have guessed this kind of approach is almost invariably greeted with anxiety, particularly with bigger and more renowned clients. An admission of any kind of culpability instinctively terrifies legal departments which is why corporate apologies are all too often considerably watered down.

But what this attitude fails to understand is that consumers are increasingly fluent in marketing speak. A statement that treads carefully and covers its own back will be spotted a mile away. A statement that is open, genuine, markedly contrite and makes concrete assertions about future behaviour will do far more restorative bridge-building for a brand.

An authentic apology can fix most things. Except a body in your wheelie bin. That needs a card at least.

@Boultini

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter at the Together Agency. Sorry.

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