JCPenney landed at the center of a firestorm earlier this month over a shirt it was selling to girls, bearing the slogan: "I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother has to do it for me."
Internet commenters registered rage at what they saw as a sexist shirt promoting girls' looks over their brains by tweeting, e-mailing, and signing online petitions. The pressure forced JCPenney to pull the shirt immediately. But the company did get credit for acting quickly and issuing an apology statement right away.
"We agree that the 'Too Pretty' T-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message, and we have immediately discontinued its sale," the statement says. "We would like to apologize to our customers."
Knowing how, when, and why to issue a smart apology can be the difference between a public-relations hiccup that can be smoothed over. and a flap that could end up dragging your company into the muck. While the long-term effects on JCPenney aren't yet clear, observers say the honest and sincere apology may have saved its reputation. What's the trick? Experts share these tips on crafting the perfect apology.
When Apologizing, Make Sure You Use the Right Words
Some people are averse to issuing apologies or even using the word "sorry" because they worry about implicating themselves in guilt or malfeasance. But experts say erring on the side of caution and issuing a prompt apology can save you headaches down the road.
"As long as someone apologizes well, it doesn't mean they're taking responsibility," says Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, founder and business-writing specialist at Syntax Training who has worked with REI, Microsoft, and Russell Investments. "The really important thing to recognize about apologies is that they are a very smart thing to issue. In order for the client or perspective customer to get over the bad feelings, we have to issue the apology. It helps the other person release their anger about it."
Most experts agree that an apology letter should open with a salutation and a warm greeting, which helps you soften up the recipient, says Julie Miller, founder and president of Business Writing That Counts and author of a book by the same name.
Then, you should acknowledge the issue you're responding to straight on without hedging too much. Gaertner-Johnston says you need to include the words "apologize," "sorry," or "regret" at some point to really hammer the point of the message home.
"You have to have those words so it can be an apology," she says.
The most important thing is to own up to own up to the mistake. Caryn Starr-Gates, a business writing professional with StarrGates Business Communication, says you can acknowledge the issue getting into the gritty details of what went wrong.
"What does matter is coming clean, being a grown up. You're taking the blame for what happened and you want to know how to make it better."
"What does matter is coming clean, being a grown up," she says. "You're taking the blame for what happened and you want to know how to make it better."
Make any Apology Personal
The format of the apology depends on the relationship you have with the client or customer, but most apologies are issued via writing, whether it is in an e-mail, a formal letter, or a message on a company website.
This is not the time for form letters, re-used templates or pre-recorded messages, Miller says. You should be personalizing it as much as possible to describe the exact nature of the incident.
"That way, the recipient will not feel like a nameless, faceless cog in the wheel but rather, will appreciate that someone took the time to find out what happened," she says. "This ties in directly with the precept to be authentic and sincere."
You can engage the recipient further by asking them to accept your apology. Some companies even go an extra step and follow up an apology letter with a phone call or e-mail to check back.
Get the Timing Right for Your Statement
If you feel like an apology is due, the worst thing you can do is to wait too long and let your customers get angrier—and tell friends about it. Experts say you should be sending out an apology as close to the incident as possible to minimize damage, much like JCPenney, which acted within a day once the controversy arose.
"That way the bad feelings won't be able to foment or go viral in any way," Gaertner-Johnston says.
Even if you aren't fielding complaints about the incident, be proactive by issuing a statement right away, Starr-Gates says. The statement is usually best when it comes from the responsible party at your company, or, if they were let go due to the incident, the person's supervisor.
"You still come across as a concerned person," Starr-Gates says. "This is people with whom you are doing business in some way. You want to leave them gratified that they're doing business with you."
In the cases were someone requests and apology that you don't agree is deserved, you're left with two options, says Paul Lima, a business writing trainer who has written several books on business writing.
"You have a decision to make: take the high road and smooth over the bump in the relationship, or hold your ground, defend your action and understand that problems will probably persist," he says.
Talk Openly About any Corrective Action
Whatever form your apology takes, you need to end it on a positive note by telling the recipient what corrective action you will take. It could be something as simple as promising better communication or something as elaborate as free airline miles.
Avoid putting the blame on the other person: for instance, don't say, "You didn't confirm the meeting," but instead say, "Sorry for the confusion over the meeting."
"That does not help them to move on," Gaertner-Johnston says. "It was just a backward apology that was really lame."
Talking about what corrective action you plan on taking lets the customer know you are aware of their concerns and want to improve.
Of course, even the best, timeliest apologies might be nothing more than a learning experience for next time.
"You have to be willing to accept the other person may not forgive you," Starr-Gates says. "Ask how you can make it better."