The Anatomy of an Apology: How to manage and respond to a scandal

Over the past 15 years, if there is one question I keep getting asked, it's “how to handle a customer complaint?". There are regular complaints, and there are a few ones, which end up becoming a public scandal damaging to the brand image and reputation when it hits a level of virality. No one wants this, but we need to be prepared for it. This is a brand in crisis: do we respond with panic, or have we proactively put a system in place?

Even established brands do get hit by scandals, but in a week’s time, it’s old news. However, for smaller businesses, it could mean the death of a brand. What should you do when this happens to your company, and there is a need to release a public statement or apology? Who must take charge? There is an art and science to handling this the right way that can build more trust in the brand. How you handle situations such as scandals is a reflection of your leadership, your brand and company values.

Welcome to your complete guide to writing a public apology.

1. Response turnaround time is everything. A statement from the company within 24 hours is ideal. The minute someone reads the viral post, and as more comments begin to build up, treat it as a ticking time bomb for your brand’s reputation. The faster you can get your official statement published, you get to manage and control the narrative. The public is eagerly waiting to hear from the company, but this does not mean you rush the process. No one in the company must respond to any of the comments in defense or in agreement in a reactive manner, as it can only make things worse. There must only be one official voice and statement from the company. Only one official and designated member of the management team will click that “post” button.

2. The lawyer must never write the final draft. You can tell when it is the legal department who wrote the statement. It sounds calculated, and protective of one side. In short, it’s safe. However, it can also sound cold and defensive. Issues the public feels invested in, cannot be handled without emotion. It has to be inclusive, empathetic and thoughtful. Make your lawyer write the first draft, then your experienced Marketing Head edits it, and ultimately the CEO or the Business Owner reviews it for the final time.

  • Lawyer’s Draft ensures you don’t invite a lawsuit. There is neutrality in the words, a promise that there will be due process or an investigation that will be conducted to appease the general public. At this stage, a separate letter must already be sent to the complainant. If you have a Corporate Communications Head, this draft could already be a collaboration between both departments.
  • Marketing’s Edit ensures it stays consistent with the brand’s values and tone of voice. The choice of words is humanized with emotion. The empathy must be felt. Please do not outsource this important work to your creative agency.
  • CEO/Business Owner’s Final Review ensures that the statement is consistent with the company’s values and reflects his or her leadership. A public statement even if unsigned is assumed to be the voice of the highest-ranking officer or authority in the company. It is that serious. Should it be signed? Yes, as a mark of accountability and leadership.

3. It is a public apology even if you call it a “public statement”. Public scandals fail loyal customers. They fail its employees working for the company, and they fail the brand. This is the context of your apology. Your legal department will warn you on the choice of words, as it may admit fault, inviting a lawsuit. This is why you need to be careful and deliberate without losing the humanity of a sincere apology.

This is my tried-and-tested anatomy of an apology letter after having written many customer service responses for brands and companies we have worked with at satisFIND over the years:

Mandatories are placing your official brand logo on top and affixing the signature of the highest-ranking officer at the end.

a. Opening

  • Acknowledge and apologize to the community affected by the situation that occurred.
  • Reassure the public on the company’s intentions and standards on quality, safety and service.
  • Share how the company and all its employees are truly sad about the situation (this is to humanize the company, that there are real people behind the company affected by the situation).
  • State how it affected the trust of the general public on the brand that [insert credibility here to remind the public that they have been with them for many years]. Examples: “the brand has been trusted and loved for so many years”, or the “company has served so many # customers”.

b. Heart

  • Share your values as a company and what the brand stands for and how this situation was against everything you believed in.
  • State clearly what actions you are taking immediately to find a solution, or to investigate the matter further. If you can be specific on the timelines, even better. If it’s sounding vague, you add more challenges to rebuilding trust.
  • Mention that the company has personally reached out to the complainant and there is communication exchanged between the parties. Everyone wants to know about this anyway so mention it to avoid further speculation and hearsay.
  • Humbly say that that the company’s apology will only be meaningful based on the actions it will take to handle this situation, and prevent it from happening again moving forward.

c. Closing

  • Acknowledge the public for the continued support for the brand, and for raising awareness that this situation is not consistent with the values of the brand and the company.
  • Humbly take accountability for disappointing the customers who trusted the brand and the company, with the promise that there will be positive change resulting from this experience (the more specific you are, the better).
  • Statement of commitment and unity, mention that the people behind the company are united in resolving the matter immediately. Examples: “We will be working closely together”, “This positive change begins with us”.
  • Humbly thank the public for calling this issue out. “Thank you for calling us out on this very important concern. We are humbled by your words and messages of support”.
  • Promise to earn back the lost trust, “We hope to earn back your trust.”

I sincerely wish that you will never have the need for this guide, but if your business involves delighting customers daily, then it’s time to start preparing your team for the worst-case scenario.

Michelle Perez Patel

Founder and Trust Experience Researcher at satisFIND