Lately, corporations have been very contrite about disappointing customers. First there was PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) penitently owning up to its role in the Academy Awards fiasco. Then Pepsi apologized for its controversial ad that reduced the Black Lives Matter movement to a noisy distraction from a Kendall Jenner photoshoot. And who can forget United’s initial mea culpa for its forceful removal of a passenger whose seat the airline needed for a crewmember.

All this apologizing made us wonder whether there was a right way to mend fences, and if utilities were doing it.

Illustration of a man holding a card that says 'sorry'

What’s the Best Way to Say “I’m Sorry”?

Most corporate apologies are insincere, noncommittal, and so scrubbed by marketers and lawyers that you can’t tell who’s apologizing for what. Turns out, there’s a pretty effective “forgive me” framework that can get you back in your customers’ good graces, win back their trust, and turn them into brand loyalists.

Jason Fried, founder and CEO of Basecamp project management software and co-author of Rework, says in his How to Say You’re Sorry article that there’s a golden rule for testing your apology: How would you feel if someone said it to you? He goes on to say:

Keep in mind that you can’t apologize your way out of being an ass. Even the best apology won’t rescue you if you haven’t earned people’s trust. Everything you do before things go wrong matters far more than the actual words you use to apologize. If you’ve built rapport with customers, they’ll cut you some slack and trust you when you say you’re sorry.

Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, says that when companies craft apologies, they should:

  • Be as brief as possible
  • Clearly explain what happened
  • Acknowledge who was hurt
  • Express regret
  • Say what they’re going to do next

Let’s run our three examples—PwC, Pepsi, and United—through Bernoff’s apology BS detector to see who got it right and who fell short.

PricewaterhouseCoopers

We sincerely apologize to ‘Moonlight,’ ‘La La Land,’ Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred.

We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.

Pepsi

Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.

United

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

Be as brief as possible. All three apologies are short, with PwC’s running the longest at 76 words.

Clearly explain what happened. Only PwC tells us exactly what happened: Presenters were given the wrong envelope. Of course, millions of people saw the gaffe happen, so the company had little choice but to confirm the story.

Acknowledge who was hurt. Both PwC and Pepsi apologize directly to those who were affected by their mistakes. But Pepsi flubs it by apologizing to supermodel Kendall Jenner—whose degree of suffering is debatable—rather than to Black Lives Matter activists, whose message Pepsi’s ad trivializes.

Express regret. Pepsi shows the most regret in its apology. Although the first two sentences sound like a teenager trying to make sense of an unfair world, the sentiment is honest.

Say what you’re going to do next. All three companies describe their next steps. PwC is investigating the incident further, Pepsi is pulling its ad, and United is conducting a review of the event and reaching out to its victim to resolve the problem.

It’s pretty easy to tell that United’s apology is the worst (seriously, “re-accommodate”?). PwC’s is the clear winner.

How Well Do Utilities Extend the Olive Branch?

So how do utility apologies measure up? Check out some examples below and let us know what you think.

Duke Energy’s apology for the 2014 Ohio River oil spill. According to a Department of Justice press release, diesel fuel spilled from a secondary fuel containment area at the utility’s Beckjord facility in New Richmond, Ohio. A valve on the containment area had been improperly left open by Duke employees, causing the diesel fuel to flow into the Ohio River.

We immediately apologized for the oil spill at our Beckjord facility in Ohio, took responsibility for the accident and responded quickly in coordination with dozens of state and federal agencies to ensure that people and the environment remained safe and well protected. We have used the accident as an opportunity to learn and improve. For example, over the past two years, we have worked hard to further strengthen our processes, training and emergency plans at our facilities.

Southern California Gas Co.’s apology for the Aliso Canyon gas leak. In 2015, the utility discovered that gas was escaping from a well within the canyon’s underground storage facility, releasing methane and ethane into the atmosphere.

Southern California Gas Co.’s apology letter

Image of SoCalGas's apology letter to Aliso Canyon residents

Read SoCalGas’s full apology (PDF).

Southern California Edison’s (SCE’s) apology for wind-related outages in 2011. On November 30, 2011, 100 mph winds knocked down trees and power lines, causing more than 400,000 customers to lose electricity for a week.

Southern California Edison’s apology letter

Image of SCE's apology letter to customers

Read SCE’s full apology.

“You’re Forgiven. Let’s Be Friends.”

Remorseful apologies strengthen the relationship companies have with their customers. They build trust and acknowledge our shared—and flawed—humanity. Do right by your customers, and they’ll do right by you by becoming loyal and active brand advocates. We’re watching to see how it pans out for United, which is on a blitz apology tour. After more than four official, passively worded mea culpas, the airline is still struggling to keep its customers. It could take years to repair the damage that the company’s insincere and thoughtlessly crafted apologies made worse. Check out the comments in the tweet below.

Contributing Authors

Content Strategist, Content Group

Joy Herbers writes, edits, publishes, and maintains content related to customer experience, billing, and residential and business marketing. She also...