‘Sorry if you were offended’. How to apologise properly

March 12th, 2018

As KFC finally stocks up on chicken, we look at some company apologies and rank them – from the royale to the bare bones

As the old adage goes, you learn more from your mistakes than your victories.

And in 2018 there is more room than ever for those mistakes.

Corporate communication is no longer simply a showpiece advert every six months, or a pre-prepared statement published in the newspaper. It’s a permanent cycle of Twitter replies, instant reactions to world events and treading the line between professionalism and informality.

With that in mind, here are a few choice examples of how to do it – and how to get it badly wrong.


What do you call a chicken shop without chicken?

When a supply chain error saw hundreds of KFC stores in the UK closed for business, the story blew up. The perfect storm of much-loved fast food and a corporate mess-up meant the brand had to react quickly – and get it right.

So they posted a full-page advert in The Sun and Metro newspapers.

Gauging how well something goes down on social media is an imperfect science. Look hard enough and you will find every type of reaction, however extreme.

But the prevailing wind suggested that KFC’s tongue-in-cheek response went down well. Few people looked at the actual written text (“Huge apologies to our customers”, “endless thanks to our KFC team members” etc) instead concentrating on the amended logo.

KFC gets points for cheekiness. And in that sense, it gets points for correctly judging that its audience isn’t bothered if the brand does not give a FCK about formality.

And any brand manager will be delighted to see the company logo, even in this adapted format, front and centre.

Job done, then!

Except, somehow, this apology left me cold. It smelled too much of an ad agency love-in. A bit too self-congratulatory with its search for something mildly controversial. If we’re supposed to be delighted at such prominent placing of an almost-swear word, then FCUK very much stole a march on the Colonel here.

Still, the written statement did successfully admit its faults with no attempt to dress them up. And perhaps I just don’t have the love for the brand that I need to get fully on board with this.

Regardless, it’s me writing this list and so…

Apology rating:

6 chicken wings 

Protein World

‘Are you beach body ready?’ screamed the ad from buses and train platforms across the country in 2015.

The phrase has become ubiquitous in the first half of each year, post-Christmas and pre-holiday season. But this ad received a wave of negativity and complaints for its depiction of that ‘beach body’ – rail thin, super-toned and bikini-clad.

But beyond that (the ad was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by the UK ad watchdog), Protein World’s response was unusually bullish.

And it wasn’t just some marketing intern left in charge of the Twitter handle.

Richard Stavely, head of marketing at Protein World, said: “We’re not a faceless corporation. There will be times when that potentially sails quite close to the wind. But I certainly don’t regret any of the approach we take.”

It’s a bizarrely tone-deaf attitude. And it looks even worse three years on, in the midst of an avalanche of horrific stories about the objectification – and more – of women.

Quite simply, the attitude of ‘sorry you were offended’ just doesn’t fly anymore.

Apology rating:

1 grain of sand between your toes


In the days before it was the media behemoth we know today, Netflix was a subscription DVD delivery service.

As instant video began its rise, Netflix decided the DVD and streaming services should be kept separate. Instead of $10 a month for both, the split meant it would be $8 for DVD delivery (named Qwikster) and another $8 for streaming. In other words, a 60% price increase for customers to get the same service they were already receiving.

800,000 people deserted Netflix in one quarter.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had to act fast and released a written blog and video statement. “I messed up,” he said. In the rush to accelerate the transition [from DVD to streaming “I slid into arrogance based upon past success.”

Qwikster lasted about a month before the idea was scrapped. Hastings had impressed with his honest confession full of ‘I’ rather than the royal ‘we’, and genuine contrition – plus genuine action.

A drive for original content and keeping prices low now sees Netflix at the very top of the streaming tree.

Apology rating:

8 hours of binge-watching Mad Men


Last year, the music mag found itself in hot water with an issue that should have been an important moment for completely different reasons.

It stepped away from music to devote an issue to talking about depression. Grime superstar Stormzy was the cover star.

But as the cover was released to the world, Stormzy denied giving permission for his image to be used.

To which NME editor Mike Williams quickly tweeted back

Aside from NME’s misfiring defence that it was a “free magazine” and “not trying to shift copies”, the other error here is in not accepting blame.

Whatever went wrong in the communication chain that led to Stormzy being featured on the cover clearly needs addressing. So just accept that a mistake was made and apologise. The pseudo-altruism of the response was called out in spectacular fashion by Stormzy. He replied: “You’re NOT a non-profit organisation. The more copies you dish out, the more you charge in advertising.”

Apology rating:

3 soggy newspapers


In 2011, the home of an Airbnb host in San Francisco called EJ was vandalised by a guest. As well as leaving the mess in a terrible state, they had broken into a locked cupboard and stolen belongings such as a camera, old laptop and an iPod.

It was serious and a major event for the company – at that time still a fresh face on the market.

Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb, responded in a blog post.

“When we learned of this our hearts sank,” he wrote. “We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks we have really screwed things up.

“[…]With regards to EJ, we let her down, and for that we are very sorry. We should have responded faster, communicated more sensitively, and taken more decisive action to make sure she felt safe and secure.”

The company immediately implemented a $50,000 Airbnb Guarantee – protecting the property of hosts from damage by Airbnb guests. The guarantee was extended to EJ and any hosts who had reported damage in the past.

Fast, effective, personal and reflective.

Apology rating:

10 weekend breaks

When it comes to apologising for a misstep, you don’t need to fight to reclaim the narrative. Accept the mistake, seek a quick solution and say the magic five-letter word.

James Sullivan, Deputy editor, Progressive Content

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