Many companies made mistakes this year. But few have apologized as effectively as Chipotle.

Yesterday the company took out full-page ads in 61 newspapers across the United States to apologize for food-borne illnesses that affected nearly 200 customers. And the copy wasn't just empty rhetoric; the ads provide a role model for how to apologize properly.

Here are the 5 things CEO Steve Ells did that you should do, too, next time you screw up:

  1. Make it personal. I'm sure Mr. Ells didn't write this message himself; Corporate Communications, Legal and a lot of other functions had to be involved. But this "letter" sounds like it came from Mr. Ells: "As a chef, nothing is more important to me than serving my guests food that is safe, delicious and wholesome."
  2. Own the problem. The ad didn't have to restate what went wrong. But doing so creates credibility (and makes the content relevant to customers who have a vague idea of what happened, but don't remember the details.) "But recent incidents, an E. coli outbreak that sickened 52 people and a norovirus outbreak that sickened approximately 140 people at a single Chipotle restaurant in Boston, have shown us that we need to do better, much better."
  3. Be clear that the buck stops with you. Mr. Ells doesn't hide behind his corporate logo; he takes direct responsibility. "The face that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry."
  4. Take action. "Glad you're sorry," think customers. "But what are you going to do about the problem?" Mr. Ells makes a big pledge: to become the leader in food safety. He then goes into great detail about the steps Chipotle plans to take to do so.
  5. End strong. People may not read the whole message, but they'll look at the beginning and the end. So make sure your last paragraph leaves an impression: "The last 22 years have been an incredible journey and we are not going to shy away from this new challenge. I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize on behalf of all us at Chipotle, and to thank our loyal customers who have stood by us through this difficult time."