United Airline plane taking off
You are an internet user, so I am quite certain you have seen the video of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight in Chicago last week. It captured the public imagination, not just because the passenger screamed so plaintively, but because most people never realized that buying an airplane ticket is reversible in that way. Who knew that an airline doesn’t have to honor its commitment to fly you somewhere if it’s more expedient to leave you on the ground?

United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, apologized at first by saying, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” This set off an uproar almost as intense as the original outrage. So he apologized again. And again. His apologies have been getting more specific and contrite each time, but he could have saved himself and his company a lot of grief by apologizing well the first time.

So let’s talk about what makes an effective public apology. There are four qualities:

1. It is prompt. The longer an apology is delayed, the less effective it will be. That makes it hard on the person responsible for composing the apology, but there is also a benefit to a prompt apology: the sooner you make it, the sooner you can put the matter behind you. Given the modern news cycle, if you wait more than 24 hours to issue an apology, you even run the risk of reawakening the news value of the incident and increasing public exposure to it.

2. It is owned. We’ve all seen public apologies that try to shift ownership for the incident: “We’re sorry anyone was offended by this incident.” That makes it sound like you think the problem is with the offended rather than the offender. It’s insincere at best, weaselly at worst. Take ownership. “We’re sorry we made this mistake” or “We’re sorry we handled this badly.” If the audience doesn’t think it hurts for you to make the apology, they won’t believe it’s a real apology.

3. It is specific. Munoz’s first apology “for having to re-accommodate these customers” was outrageous. You get no real benefit from an apology that generalizes and uses abstract language. You can even come off as obtuse. It wasn’t until the third apology that Munoz got it right: “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

4. It is contrite. We can see in Munoz’s third apology the sort of contrition that helps to make an apology effective: “No one should ever be mistreated this way.” That apology also detailed what the airline was doing to avoid such blunders in the future, which not only suggests sincerity but is likely to make the audience more forgiving.

Munoz’s third apology has almost all the elements of an effective public apology, but because it was a week in coming, it allowed a great deal of damage to pile up in the meantime. A public apology that is prompt, owned, specific, and contrite is one that we generally call “gracious.” It may not be sufficient to fully recover from the damage caused by whatever you are apologizing for. But if you apologize graciously, it’s a start.


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