What’s the Right Way to Apologize When You Screw Up?

Screw-ups. We all have ‘em. With friends, family, and yes, with our commercial writing clients. But, how you deal with it can be far more important than the screw-up itself. This subject may be a bit off the mainstream of commercial writing, but thought it was worth knocking around, and certainly has relevance for our copywriting businesses.

Last week, one of my copywriting colleagues stepped in it after sending out a note about a coaching client and a niche that client had developed, and sent a link to a YouTube video featuring that client prominently on one side of contentious political issue.

Later that day, once realization dawned (no doubt spurred by some angry notes), out went the mea culpa, saying, in essence, “I didn’t mean to promote a political point of view, and have been so busy lately doing this and that that I neglected to ‘consider the content’ of what I sent out.”

In the wake of that, I got an email from a reader, saying, “Upon reading her apology I unsubscribed from her list” (having just subscribed a few days earlier). She went on to point out that, “not ‘considering the content’ showed little respect for one’s recipients, which, in turn, ends up losing, not gaining interest and goodwill.”

Finally, and most importantly, she took offense at my colleague’s apology, which was less of an apology and more of an excuse, citing “busy-ness” with this and that unrelated task and, as a result of that preoccupation, not thinking it through.

As my friend explained, “When we make a mistake, don’t we have an obligation to own it? With a different sort of apology I might not have unsubscribed. Something like: ‘Today I distributed a video featuring one of my clients. I regret sending it. The video did not demonstrate the point I was hoping to make, and in fact contained a political message many of you may have found inappropriate and offensive. I apologize. Please be assured that nothing like this will happen again.’ But instead she made excuses.”

Which made me think about the nature of apologies. In follow-on emails, we both sympathized with my colleague’s compounded error. You make a mistake, and in trying to apologize, it’s only human to want to make yourself look good (or less bad). You’re faced with a) frankly admitting no-excuse cluelessness, or, b) claiming the excuse of distracted carelessness (who can’t relate to being too busy?). In this case, my colleague chose the latter. And perhaps it worked on some, but certainly not on my friend.

I bring up this episode NOT to gang up on my colleague anymore (who no doubt took themselves to the woodshed several times), but to use it as a discussion starter about the nature of apologies. I’ve certainly apologized in the past like my colleague did, so I can’t throw stones. But now (perhaps based on the results of that approach), I put myself in the second camp. If I screw up, I’ll throw myself to the wolves – no excuses.

One of the things I’ve learned in my years on earth is that, overwhelmingly, people are just looking for reasons to forgive you. Do a soft-shoe, deflect and dissemble and they’ll pound you doubly hard. Perhaps because they’re punishing you for that same slippery quality they hate in themselves.

But, come to them with a clear-eyed admission of guilt, hat in hand, no excuses, and they’ll fall all over themselves to offer you absolution. Perhaps, because, by the same token, they’re rewarding you for showing the same flawed humanness they share with you, a humanness they know takes courage to reveal. And they’ll not only forgive you, you’ll grow in stature in their eyes. Sometimes irrationally…

Caught a news item last week about Lt. Calley of My Lai (Vietnam) massacre infamy, who, 41 years after the fact, finally apologized for his role in the cold-blooded murder of 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians – mostly women and children. He did it at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Columbus, Georgia, where afterwards – you ain’t going to believe this – the assembled attendees gave him a standing ovation.

If that isn’t proof that people love to be magnanimous (and will actually think better of you no matter what you did), whether or not they should be, I’m not sure what is.

Can you share a time you apologized to a client in a no-excuses manner and how did it turn out?

Can you share a time you apologized to a client by making excuses and how did that turn out?

Any other thoughts on apologies?