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How Brands Should Apologize

Wesley Mathew

May 18, 2020

We've covered a few of the PR crises that have hit brands this year and the timing to reenter this discussion is important as a new app, Bodega, received condemnation on social media last week. This post on how brands should apologize can help you be prepared for a crisis, rather than scrambling after you're in the thick of it. Download our ebook, Media Intelligence for Crisis Communications and ensure that you'll be able to control the damage, no matter the situation.

2017 has brought us more than its share of communications disasters. Pepsi’s controversial Black Lives Matter ad featuring Kendall Jenner, Adidas’s Boston Marathon email campaign (“Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon”). And, of course, United Airlines, which made a series of missteps in its attempt to appropriately apologize for the forced removal of a passenger. And these are just but a few of the corporate communications faux pas we've seen in recent times.

When these misfires occur — and of course, they do — it’s vital that brands are prepared to make amends. The first step in this process is the apology. And, it had better be a thoughtful apology. It’s not enough to simply apologize—it’s HOW you apologize that matters.

Apologies Shouldn’t Include Denials

“Companies need to think carefully about their policies and their crisis communications, so they can quickly move from a defensive crouch to honest, heartfelt apologies,” says Andrew Winston, author of The Big Pivot.

“The biggest mistake is for brands to hedge their apology with phrases such as, ‘We’re sorry to those who were offended,'” says Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations and author of the Mr. Media Training Blog and the Amazon PR best seller The Media Training Bible. “Such language places the burden on the offended person and stops short of accepting full responsibility.”

Brands should also avoid denying any wrongdoing when they apologize.

“Denial is the simple thing to do, and people grasp wildly at the first straw to occur to them,” said William Benoit, Ohio University Communications professor, and author of Accounts, Excuses, Apologies: Image Repair Theory and Research.

Denial can hurt subsequent apologies. Sincerely owning the mistake is at the heart of an effective apology. There’s an appreciation for laying it all out there by simply saying, “We messed-up and we’re sorry.”

In the case of United, CEO Oscar Munoz did eventually offer a heartfelt apology. After his first two apologies created a backlash, he finally took full responsibility, promising to make it right with the passenger and pledging to put new procedures in place.

“The problem for Munoz is that he bungled the first two apologies, undermining the impact of his third one,” says Phillips. “Had he started with that apology, the incident would have played out far differently.”

The Situation Helps Determine the Tone of an Apology

Another factor to consider is the nature of the incident. “For example, it’s much easier to apologize in cases in which you, too, can be perceived as a victim,” Phillips said. “A medical supply company that couldn’t get vital medications to customers due to an unexpected snowstorm is unlikely to face long-term reputational damage, whereas that same company failing to make deliveries due to incompetence would.”

In some cases, explaining what exactly took place can help clear the air and help folks be more forgiving. For example, at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, PricewaterhouseCoopers made a mistake with the Best Picture envelope, causing the presenter to announce the wrong film. Because the company offered an immediate apology with an explanation of how the mix-up occurred, they were able to keep the client.

What Belongs in a Good Apology?

So, what exactly should be in an effective apology? According to Dr. Beth Polin, an assistant professor of management at Eastern Kentucky University and co-author of The Art of the Apology, an apology should include one or more of six components:

  • An expression of regret — this, usually, is the actual “I’m sorry.”
  • An explanation (but, importantly, not a justification).
  • An acknowledgment of responsibility.
  • A declaration of repentance.
  • An offer of repair.
  • A request for forgiveness.

And what words should you choose when you apologize? Simple language is best. No need for flowery prose. An example of this is Adidas, who immediately took responsibility for its insensitivity with this apology from spokeswoman Maria Culp: “We are incredibly sorry. There was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday. We deeply apologize for our mistake.”

Need more examples? On a site called SorryWatch, you can find examples of apologies that worked—and those that didn’t. The founders, Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall, write a weekly post that reviews poorly handled public apologies, giving tips on structure and language.

Their best advice? In the end, don’t make excuses. “Apologizing well means acknowledging that, at that moment at least, you were not good,” says Ingall.

After all, even good people (and brands) can make mistakes. 2017 Has had more than its share of communications disasters and as big brands like Pepsi, United, and Uber make big missteps, a simple statement that brands should apologize becomes a loaded PR strategy. If you’d like to be prepared for the next time you need to apologize, download our crisis ebook.

This Strategy in Practice: Wins versus Fails

By now it's clear that when a very public mistake or mishap occurs within your organisation, a public apology – and a commitment to right the wrong – is in order. 

A swift mea culpa, coupled with some affirmative action to make good and ensure that the likelihood of such an event occurring again is minimised, is the correct approach and will generally help an organisation win back the favour of its customers. Moreover, if the response can be injected with a little humour (where appropriate of course), so much the better. 

Here we have highlighted examples of winners and losers when it comes to public apologies in the aftermath of a PR crisis. 

What did the winners do?

Kentucky Fried Chicken, KFC

Last year, KFC went through a highly publicised crisis when “operational issues” with new delivery provider DHL caused a mass shortage of chicken at its fast food outlets across the UK. One of the most bizarre consequences of this was police forces in London and Manchester having to issue statements urging the public to stop contacting the emergency services about the shortage, as it was “not a police matter”! 

KFC responded by taking out full-page ads in the national press, featuring one of its famous buckets with the company name rearranged to read ‘FCK’ instead of ‘KFC’, to reflect the mood of its chicken-deprived customers. It also acknowledged that “a chicken restaurant without any chicken is not ideal.” This humorous response to what was a serious situation for the company was very well received, and no lasting damage was done to the brand. 

KFC bucket

PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC

One of the highest profile cock-ups to take place anywhere in the world in recent years was the Oscars blunder in 2017, when an envelope mix up resulted in Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announcing ‘La La Land’ as Best Picture winner, when the actual winner was ‘Moonlight.’

Beatty had a duplicate card with the winner of Best Actress, which had been awarded to Emma Stone for La La Land immediately prior to the Best Picture announcement. Beatty paused as he read the card out but continued anyway, wrongly announcing La La Land as the winner. The La La Land production team and cast were already on stage collecting the prize and delivering their speeches before a representative from accountancy firm PwC came onto the stage to inform them of the error. 

PwC was in charge of supervising the counting of the ballots for each award, as well as the presentations on the night. Following the error, which could scarcely be more public, given that around 30 million people were watching it live in the US and many millions more worldwide, PwC issued a statement saying “We sincerely apologise 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.” 

PwC added that it deeply regretted that the incident occurred and said it appreciated the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, and the host Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.

Adding to the embarrassment felt by PwC in the wake of the blunder was the fact that in the week leading up to that year’s Oscars ceremony, PwC’s Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, who were responsible for overseeing the counting of the votes and are the only two people who know all the winners before they are announced, gave an interview to the BBC in which they outlined its “watertight system” for ensuring that the awards presentations pass without a hitch.   

Following the ceremony, PwC assumed full responsibility for the blunder and promised to fully investigate what went wrong with the system to prevent such an error occurring in the future. Given that the profile of the event could barely be higher, that PwC have emerged from it with their reputation fairly intact is a credit to them and the steps they took in its aftermath.     

What can we learn from history?


One of the most valuable case studies for comms professionals comes from Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal. When it emerged early in 2018 that a political data firm had harvested the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent, consumer backlash was immense.

When the scandal first broke, Facebook vigorously and indignantly defended itself, arguing that people had consented by virtue of their privacy settings. But the backlash only intensified when it was reported that Facebook’s privacy settings were buried across 20 pages of the site, and that Cambridge Analytica were one of many organisations guilty of exploiting that by harvesting Facebook users’ data without their knowledge. 

Eventually, Facebook’s chief privacy officer said Facebook would move all the privacy settings into one place (without offering an explanation as to why they weren’t in the first place), something Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised to do “within weeks” of another privacy breach eight years previously but failed to follow through on. 

The lesson? Be wary of launching into defence mode without addressing the grievances of your community; also, ensure to follow through on any corrective measures issued alongside your apology.


In 2017, Pepsi drew a barrage of negative publicity for an ad featuring Kendall Jenner, in which she quelled a riot by offering a police officer a can of Pepsi, a gesture which elicited cheers from the onlooking protestors. 

Given that the US was at the time (and still is) mired in controversy over the killing by police of African American youths, and the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum with protests over perceived unlawful killings happening all over the country, the idea that a protest could be quelled by a can of soda was not well received to say the least.

Following the ad’s release, Pepsi was eviscerated on social media, as they were seen to be capitalising on the Black Lives Matter movement to sell soft drink. The daughter of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Bernice King, even weighed in, posting on Twitter “If only daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.” 

Pepsi eventually pulled the ad, but a few months later, Pepsi’s CEO, Indra Nooyi continued to defend the ad, demonstrating that the company still didn’t get what all the fuss was about. The lesson? Purpose driven marketing and CSR are increasingly important for today's consumers, but authenticity is key here. Brands need to ensure that if they're involving themselves in political and social conversations, their message is not only culturally sensitive, but also aligned with their internal corporate business practices and values.

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