The Art of the Social Apology: Lessons from No Doubt and Nokia

In a world where information only trends for 15 minutes (Twitter) or shared constantly for days (Facebook), companies are required to be more responsible in everything they communicate and possess the ability to rectify those things which slip through cracks. This defines the art of the social apology. Most people can tell the difference between a sincere and an insincere apology. It’s not just the tone, but the words themselves that give some insight into whether the person apologizing accepts responsibility for what happened. Consider these two examples:

“I am sorry I hurt you.”

“I am sorry if my actions offended you in some way.”

The first statement accepts blame. The second – by including the word “if” and omitting the word “I” – stops short of shouldering full responsibility.

When you work in public relations, understanding these subtle differences can help your client out of almost any PR-related debacle. Here’s what you need to know about saving face:

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The case of the offensive video

The pop band No Doubt released a video online in early November and yanked it from YouTube the same day. Many viewers didn’t approve of singer Gwen Stefani’s feathered headdress, her singing in a teepee or her being chained to a wall. Native Americans criticized the video for perpetuating stereotypes, and because of the public outcry, No Doubt apologized for the video on its website the next day.

The band had an opportunity to make things right, yet the apology seemed a little thin. Saying that it “consulted with Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California” before making the video, the band seemed to shift some of the blame onto others – generally not the hallmark of a good apology.

The case of the phony footage

In September, telecom company Nokia found itself in a PR pickle when it unveiled its new Nokia Lumia 920 phone. A demonstration of the phone’s video-production abilities was shot with a different camera – not with the Nokia phone, as the demo footage suggested.

The company quickly apologized, saying it should have included a disclaimer with the video. Nevertheless, the company’s stock dropped 10 percent the day the new phone hit the market – and dropped 3 percent the day after. It seems that people didn’t necessarily believe Nokia’s apology. And the fact that the company launched its own ethics review of the matter indicates that Nokia may have doubted its own story, too. In this instance, a dubious apology cost the company dearly.

Offense fatigue

A post on the blog Native Appropriations outlines why Native Americans took offense at the No Doubt video. It displayed a lack of cultural sensitivity and lack of regard for Native American culture that has become all too prevalent in the media. The cumulative effects of stereotyping can be quite demoralizing.

Trying to make a cultural reference in an advertisement, video or article is tricky territory. The potential to offend is great. Do the producers of No Doubt’s video even know what a Native American headdress is for, what it means or who would wear one? Obviously not. PR professionals would be wise to leave Native American culture to the people who know it and avoid altogether having to craft an artful apology.

Nokia’s PR blunder – while not culturally insensitive – came across as deception, even if that wasn’t the intent. A more thorough apology could have helped the company overcome this problem. Nokia could have acknowledged that people felt deceived; instead, the company apologized for “the confusion” its product demo caused.

This is the Engagement Age. People have the ability to share everything, at any time, to anyone. Business responsibility finds a higher purpose in such exchanges, not only to monitor what is said but to correct the mistakes made while doing whatever it takes not the make such mistakes in the first place.  Though a thorough apology that accepts responsibility is the best option when trying to undo a PR misstep, it may need to be communicated on many different channels in many different ways. Language and tone can win people over, or drive them away.

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