Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

How To Apologize Online

Hint: Do it like Kickstarter, not Paula Deen.

If you’re human, eventually you’ll have to apologize for something. How you communicate that apology will say more about you, your company, and your community than anything else.

Two high profile apologies hit the web today, one from Kickstarter and the other from Paula Deen. Without getting into the specifics of what they were each apologizing for, they make for two fascinating case studies in how to apologize online.

(Yes, Kickstarter is a company and Paula Deen is a person, but in this context, they’re both corporations with angry communities, and their businesses hang in the balance.)

With today’s examples in mind, here’s the Fertile Medium recipe for apologizing online.

Step 1: Restate the problem.

I know, you’re embarrassed. You probably don’t want to remind everyone of the thing that pissed them off. But apologies online take on a life of their own, bringing in people who are unfamiliar with the details. Restating the problem not only gets everyone on the same page, it also shows that you understand what you did wrong.

Kickstarter begins their post with a brief summation of what happened, complete with links so that the interested reader can follow up for more information. Paula Deen skips this step, only referring to “inappropriate language,” leaving those unfamiliar with the situation to imagine the worst.

Step 2: Own it.

Before you do anything else, prove that you know what you did. This shows that you’re not just apologizing because someone told you that you have to – you’re apologizing because you have genuine remorse.

Kickstarter says, in a paragraph all by itself, “We were wrong.” It’s a sharp, frank admission. Paula Deen says she “made plenty of mistakes along the way” but doesn’t say if she thinks this was one of them. She says “I apologize,” but never simply says “I was wrong.”

Step 3: Say you’re sorry.

Now that you’ve demonstrated your understanding of the situation, your apology will have more meaning. Never, ever follow the word “sorry” with the word “if” – as in: “I’m sorry if you’re offended.” That only shows that you don’t really mean it.(Nobody did this here, I just hate that.)

Both Kickstarter and Paula Deen did this part, but it was basically all Paula Deen did, which is why her apology has so little weight.

Step 4: Explain what went wrong.

This is a tricky maneuver. Do it right and your explanation will add valuable details that help the reader better understand your perspective. Do it wrong and it’ll sound like defensiveness.

Kickstarter did this part very well. They explain why they acted when they did, and shared more detail about their internal process. I especially like that they admitted that they’re “biased towards creators.” As a platform for creation, of course they are.

Paula Deen didn’t do this at all. She could have said, “You know, I grew up in Georgia in the ’50s and let me tell you, I heard some horrifying stuff. I’m sad to say, some of that language and some of those jokes got stuck in my head. I’m ashamed that I repeated them.”

Explaining what went wrong doesn’t mean excusing it. But, if handled correctly, it can serve to humanize the apologizer.

Step 5: Make a vow.

Explaining what happened shows you understand the past, making a vow shows you’ve thought about the future. Make a promise to not repeat this mistake. Do it at a permanent URL and be clear about what you’re promising. You’ll be judged by how you keep your word.

Kickstarter also did this with aplomb. They took direct action, explained why, provided proof, and changed their guidelines to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Paula Deen … didn’t. She apologized in multiple videos, some of which kept disappearing throughout the day, adding an unnecessary layer of aggravation to the whole ordeal.

Step 6: Make amends.

Prove you get it.

Apologizing isn’t just about words, it’s about deeds. Do something to prove that you understand the magnitude of your mistake.

In Kickstarter’s case, they made a large donation to a nonprofit that’s directly related to the issue at hand. They put more money into the nonprofit than was involved in the mistake. This shows they understand the value of their community goodwill.

Paula Deen, again, didn’t do anything of the sort.

Step 7: Apologize again.

Apologies don’t have a 1:1 ratio with mistakes. You may have to apologize more than once. Don’t like apologizing? Pick a career that doesn’t involve other people. Apologize and keep apologizing as long as you have to.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Kickstarter apologized in text and Paula Deen did it in a video. While this could be because her primary relationship with her audience is in video, it also may have been an attempt to humanize her.

Apologies via video is a dangerous strategy. If the video is too polished (as her first one was), it can seem inauthentic. If the video is too amateur (as the second and third ones were), it looks like you’re not taking it seriously. Perhaps, if she’d written it instead, she could have given it a bit more thought. Changing her usual medium from video to text would have shown a degree of consideration that the videos didn’t.

Mistakes are inevitable. How you respond is what defines you. Use the apology opportunity to reinforce your core values.

If you do it right, you’ll create a stronger bond with your community, one that will earn you the benefit of the doubt the next time you screw up.

Do it wrong and you may just lose your job.

Fertile Medium is an advice column for people who live online. Each edition tackles a topic or question from you about building social spaces online. Want to ask a question? Tweet to @fertilemedium or call (415) 286-5446 and leave a message.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.