The words we use are critically important. Even one word can make a huge difference.
Case in point: This past week, Steve Bryant, the President of Columbia Gas, held a short press conference. As reported by the New York Times, the purpose of the statement was to calm the fears of residents who had lost their homes in explosions presumably caused by high-pressure gas lines around the Massachusetts area, close to Boston.
"We are sorry and deeply concerned about the inconvenience," he said. "This is the sort of thing that a gas distribution company hopes never happens."
There's one word that sticks out in that sentence. If you've been following the story, you know that one person died as a result of an explosion, an 18-year-old named Leonel Rondon. He was in his car when a suspected gas explosion caused a fireplace to collapse on top of him. At least 25 people were injured in the blasts, and thousands have been displaced, but so far the response has been inadequate, per officials.
Mayor Dan Rivera from Lawrence, Massachusetts, held a press conference where he blasted Columbia Gas, suggesting that the leadership has mishandled the response.
"There is not 100% knowledge of what the pressure was on those lines," he said, explaining that the evacuation process was not clearly explained.
"Everything else has been obfuscation," he said.
The words we use
Can word one set off this type of anger and frustration?
Yes it can. Using the word "inconvenience" was the tip of the iceberg, a poor choice of words by any stretch of the imagination. It's marketing spin on the actual circumstances.
I can imagine many of the customers repeating this word to themselves. "Are you serious? An inconvenience? That's the apology?" they might have said. At least two Senators and one Governor toured the area, and the situation still seems out of control.
How should the company have responded? For starters, saying "inconvenience" is a trigger word, a sign that there is a serious problem. Use any other word. Avoid saying words that make it seem like you're downplaying the seriousness of the problem.
As the Mayor stated, the response has been underwhelming. By issuing an apology that didn't lay out any clear plan of action, and not accepting responsibility, it makes customers and the general public suspicious.
You might say: Maybe there isn't enough information yet. That's possible, but the tone of the press conference should have been one of remorse, regret, and concern. It should have spelled out exactly what the next steps would be--an investigation, a thorough inquiry about who was responsible.
Apologies should always be clearly stated, and explain the next steps involved with as much detail as possible, with as much empathy and emotional intelligence as possible.
The lesson for anyone issuing an apology? Make sure the apology itself does not require a second apology (something residents are still waiting to hear).