The anatomy of an effective apology

The anatomy of an effective apology

Becky Sarniak

Jun 03, 2015

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Company missteps can happen for many reasons – negligence, accident, poor decision making, etc. We have seen companies take different approaches to responding to those missteps. Some lead with an effort to repair customer relationships, such as issuing compensation or a sincere apology, whereas others fail to address the issue by either denying allegations or remaining silent. The most beneficial response may depend on the type of violation an organization is perceived to have committed. When thinking about image recovery after a company misstep on a larger scale, the response is likely to be public and may impact consumer opinion in different ways.

When an apology is necessary, it needs to reach out to the public to try to regain their trust. Regaining trust isn’t achieved through a one-size-fits-all strategy; the optimal approach to reaching your consumers varies by audience. The more attuned you are to who your target audience is and what trust means to them, the better suited you are to repair relationships in the most effective way possible. Looking at the way various companies have responded, advice for how to apologize emerges. The recent initial apology from Blue Bell Ice Cream after a Listeria outbreak is a good example of a response that hits the right notes. Here’s what we can learn from their apology:

1. Be sincere.

First and foremost, be authentic and sincere in your apology. The public can tell when you don’t mean what you say, or worse, you’re just saying what they want to hear. Apologies that are sincere are original, express your individual company’s thoughts and values, and aren’t formulaic. Sincerity comes from the overall tone; consumers intuitively know if the words ring true to the company issuing the apology. For example, one thing Blue Bell said in their apology in particular falls in line with their previous communications with customers, giving it a ring of authenticity:

“We want enjoying our ice cream to be a source of joy and pleasure, never a cause for concern, so we are committed to getting this right.”

2. Express sorrow and regret.

Expressing sincere sorrow tells customers that the company cares about its customers and has every intention of treating them the way that they’re deserved to be treated – like the company’s biggest asset. Admitting regret signals to consumers that not only do you care, but you realize the magnitude of your mistake and will not abuse consumers’ trust again – regardless of the cause of the initial issue.

Here’s what Blue Bell had to say:

“We are heartbroken about this situation and apologize to all of our loyal Blue Bell fans and customers. Our entire history has been about making the very best and highest quality ice cream, and we intend to fix this problem.”

3. Be transparent.

Transparency indicates that an organization is taking ownership of what happened, and will share what they feel their customers need to know –even if it may affect their customer relationships and bottom line. Customers appreciate knowing that the company is taking steps to find out what happened and why in order to learn from their mistakes.

Here’s Blue Bell’s response:

“We have brought in one of the world’s most respected food safety microbiologists to inspect our plants and systems to help us get to the bottom of this issue.

Through further internal testing, we learned today that Listeria monocytogenes was found in an additional half gallon of ice cream in our Brenham facility. While we initially believed this situation was isolated to one machine in one room, we now know that was wrong. We need to know more to be completely confident that our products are safe for our customers.”

4. Make a plan.

Outline steps you will take in the future to avoid this happening again. This helps consumers trust that an organization is doing what it can to make sure that products or services will deliver in the future and that the same mistake won’t happen again.

“As Blue Bell moves forward, we are implementing a procedure called “test and hold” for all products made at all of our manufacturing facilities. This means that all products released will be tested first and held for release to the market only after the tests show they are safe.

In addition to the “test and hold” system, Blue Bell is implementing additional safety procedures and testing including:

-Expanding our already robust system of daily cleaning and sanitizing of equipment

-Expanding our system of swabbing and testing our plant environment by 800 percent to include more surfaces

-Sending samples daily to a leading microbiology laboratory for testing

-Providing additional employee training”

5. Follow through.

The fallout from the recall of Blue Bell Ice Cream has yet to fully play out, so we will have to watch Blue Bell as it attempts to follow through with what it has promised. Throwing a wrench into this apology was subsequent news stories that the FDA had found Listeria in Blue Bell Creameries prior to the recall. This additional information may make it hard for Blue Bell to regain the public’s trust.  This is an uphill battle because this trust has to overcome the negative perceptions resulting from the perceived transgression. Following through on what Blue Bell promised in their apology will help show consumers that they have learned from past mistakes and their customers can trust them in the future to stand by what they say.



Wong (2002). The Role of Culture in the Perception of Service Recovery.

Ferrin, Kim, Cooper, and Dirks (2005). Silence Speaks Volumes: The Effectiveness of Reticence in Comparison to Apology and Denial for Responding to Integrity- and Competence-Based Trust Violations.

Kim, P. H., Ferrin, D. L., Cooper, C. D., & Dirks, K. T. (2004). Removing the shadow of suspicion: The effects of apology versus denial for repairing competence- versus integrity-based trust violations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 104-118.



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Becky Sarniak

Manager, Moderating Services

What I love about research is learning about people and what they think. Discovering the reasoning behind behavior and what motivates people to move from a plan of action to action itself.

Our relationship with iModerate has enabled us to quickly and efficiently seek the voice of the consumer or customer, and incorporate it into our business decisions, allowing us to become smarter and faster to market. The team iModerate is, in essence, a virtual extension of the Abbott research team – from them, I know that when I pick up the phone and call, on the other end will be someone who understands my business, knows my target consumer, and will always deliver high quality results.

Kristen McLane, Manager, Shopper Insights & Category Development, Abbott Nutrition