Corporate Apology Bot 3000

How a company should speak
Orlaith Wood
by Orlaith Wood

When Heathrow’s shiny new Terminal 5 opened in March 2008, it wasn’t quite ready to do what’s normally required of an airport terminal – that is, fly people places and make sure their bags go with them.

In the space of ten days, 42,000 pieces of luggage failed to travel with their owners, and over 500 flights were cancelled. British Airways was having a total ’mare.

A friend of mine, Chris, experienced the joys of T5’s opening week first-hand. He managed to make it to New York, but his luggage wasn’t so lucky. It took a detour via Georgia. And not Georgia, USA. Georgia, just south of Russia.

Chris queued for answers among the disgruntled throngs at JFK. A pint-sized BA rep made her way down the line, calling out for ‘Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Smith’. Once she’d located the pair – two prim, proper British ladies – she looked them in the eye, clapped her hands together once, and said, in a thick New York accent,

“Listen, ladies. No luggage.”

No sugar coating. No copied-and-pasted excuse. Just the simple truth, delivered with humanity.

Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Smith shrugged and laughed. They weren’t angry. It was a crap situation – but someone had just spoken to them like a human being. And on the whole, we humans tend to like that.

The BA lady could have said:

“As an appointed representative of British Airways, I regret to inform you that your luggage has not completed its scheduled journey to this airport.”

Which is what you might expect from a big corporation. But it wouldn’t have had the same effect. Why? Because humans don’t sound like that. Big, faceless companies who want to avoid responsibility sound like that.

No one ever used the word ‘incident’ to describe something good

When a data breach at Equifax exposed the personal details of 143 million Americans (almost half the US population), this was the company’s official statement:

“Earlier this year, during the 2016 tax season, Equifax experienced a security incident involving a payroll-related service. The incident was reported to customers, affected individuals and regulators. This incident was also covered in the media.”

Vague jargon. Passive voice. Cold, corporate and unaccountable. Legal caution notwithstanding, is it really that hard to just say sorry?

Apparently so. Everywhere you look, brands are using language to dodge responsibility any time something goes wrong.

Take South Western Railway. When they’re trying to sell us something, it’s all smiles and humanity. Plenty of ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘we’.

Southern Railway 1

But when it comes to informing us of the (many) delays to their train services, it’s a different story. ‘You’ become an abstract ‘passenger’. There’s certainly no more ‘us’ or ‘we’. Half the time they're not even telling us anything useful, just ‘trains may be cancelled'.

Southern Railway 2
Southern Railway 3

Don’t lock your humanity in the marketing department

Why do brands do this?

Why spend time and money creating a friendly tone of voice if you’re going to leave it in a drawer when it comes to sharing bad news?

Why bother sounding human in your marketing when you’re going to revert to Hostile Bureaucrat Mode when you have to let people down?

The answer might be fear. Or defensiveness. Or maybe just laziness. Or it might be because the people in charge of giving bad news haven’t been shown how to use the brand’s tone of voice.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to say all brands are guilty of a lack of humanity. When KFC ran out of chicken last year, they schooled us all in how to nail a corporate apology that’s bang on brand.

KFC apology example

Writing with humanity just means writing like yourself

(Unless you are actually a robot.) Falling back on formal language might feel like the most comfortable default for explaining bad news. But it’s not the best way.

If you wouldn’t say it out loud, don’t write it down.

Don’t say sorry for inconvenience that may have been caused. You sound like a weasel. Just say sorry.

It’s not all about gushing apologies, or elaborate excuses. Sometimes all it takes to get someone on your side is ‘Listen, ladies. No luggage.’

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