If you make a mistake, and the media, the social influencers, and your customers respond with outrage, there’s one thing you can do to slow or stop the cancel culture train: apologize.

And there’s one thing you can do to speed it up: apologize badly.

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

  1. Be as brief as possible
  2. Clearly explain what happened
  3. Acknowledge who was hurt
  4. Express regret
  5. Say what they’re going to do next

Remorseful apologies strengthen the relationship companies have with their customers. They build trust and acknowledge our shared—and flawed—humanity. Customers who trust you are customers who are loyal to you.

How did Texas mess up its mea culpa?

As Texas recovered from the winter storm that nearly broke the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid, accountability was scarce.

The closest ERCOT got to an apology was a tweet on February 17, 2021, when hundreds of thousands of Texans were freezing in the dark (figure 1).

Figure 1: ERCOT’s midcrisis tweet

In less than 280 characters, ERCOT misses the mark by offering questionable comradery and confusing tech terms.

If the Lone Star State were looking to its politicians for explanations, reassurance, and contrition, it was woefully disappointed. Texas senator Ted Cruz took off to Cancun to escape the disaster. His apology for abandoning his state in the midst of a crisis started well enough with “it was obviously a mistake,” then went a little sideways with “in hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it,” then derailed with (paraphrased) “my kids were cold, they didn’t have school, and I had the means to take them to Mexico.” (figure 2).

Figure 2: Texas senator Ted Cruz apologizes for Cancun trip

When the power went out in Texas, Senator Cruz made the unwise decision to go to Mexico. Here, he admits his mistake.

What’s the best way to say “I’m sorry”?

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.

Let’s look at a company that got its apology right, noting how well it meets our criteria.

At the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, actress Faye Dunaway named “La La Land” as the year’s Best Picture. Moments later, the honor was rescinded and bestowed on the true winner: “Moonlight.” Watch the whole cringey thing unfold in figure 3.

Figure 3: The Oscar goes to … the entirely wrong movie

The Best Picture mix-up at the 2017 Academy Awards stunned TV viewers around the world.

Quick to claim responsibility, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) released this apology:

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.

Does the apology meet our five requirements?

  1. Be as brief as possible. The accounting firm apologized in just 76 words.
  2. Clearly explain what happened. PwC tells us exactly what happened: Presenters were given the wrong envelope.
  3. Acknowledge who was hurt. The company names the people who were directly affected by the mistake: the producers and crews of “Moonlight” and “La La Land”; the presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway; and the TV viewers who witnessed the major mix-up.
  4. Express regret. The company states it plainly: “We … deeply regret that this occurred.”
  5. Say what you’re going to do next. PwC says it’s investigating the incident further.

How well do utilities extend the olive branch?

We found a few examples of utility apologies. How do you think they fare? Give your opinion in the comments below.

PG&E CEO Bill Johnson apologizes for the 2018 Camp Fire. The deadly Camp Fire devastated the towns of Paradise, Concow, and Magalia in Northern California’s Butte County. Eighty-four people died. On June 16, 2020, PG&E CEO Bill Johnson pleaded guilty on behalf of the utility, saying:

I apologize personally for the pain that was caused here. We can’t replace all that the fire destroyed but we do hope by pleading guilty, by accepting accountability, by compensating the victims, supporting rebuilding, and making significant and lasting changes to the way we operate, we can honor those who were lost and help this community move forward.

Duke Energy apologizes for the 2014 Ohio River oil spill. According to 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. The apology says:

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.

SoCalGas apologizes 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. Read SoCalGas’s letter in figure 4.

Figure 4: SoCalGas’s apology letter

Dennis Arriola, previous president and CEO of SoCalGas, apologizes for the utility’s role in the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak.
SoCalGas apology letter explaining Aliso Canyon natural gas leak. Visit https://www.socalgas.com/ for details.

Southern California Edison (SCE) apologizes for wind-related outages in 2011. On November 30, 2011, 100 mph winds knocked down trees and power lines in SCE’s service territory, causing more than 400,000 customers to lose electricity for a week. Read SCE’s letter in figure 5.

Figure 5: SCE’s apology letter

Signed by former SCE president Ron Litzinger, this apology letter thanks customers for their patience as the utility repairs damage from windstorms.
SCE apology letter explaining damage during windstorms. Visit https://www.sce.com/ for details.

Contributing Authors

Content Strategist, Portfolio and Product Strategy

Joy Herbers researches, writes, and edits reports across all E Source services. As the company’s content strategist, she leads...