How to Nail the Social Media Apology

Chris Syme (@cksyme) is principal at, a consulting firm in Bozeman, Mont.

Just as loose lips sink ships, errant thumbs and fingers can send a reputation into the depths of despair. What do you do when your college president, a professor or a campus leader says something offensive on social media? How do you nail that social media apology?

How to Apologize on Social Media

According to Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist who conducts research on the science of motivation, the most important thing in an apology is to remember that the apology is not about you. Using phrases like “I didn’t mean to…”, “I was trying to…”, or “I didn’t realize…” doesn’t help set things right. When you mess up, people don’t want to hear about you. In “The Most Effective Way to Make it Right When You Screw Up,” a Harvard Business Review blog post, Halvorson wrote, “Remember to ask yourself the following: Who am I talking to, and what is he or she looking for in my apology?”

Some actions call for a longer explanation and multiple-channel apologies, but if you offended the masses in 140 characters on Twitter, that is where you should apologize. Jay Baer and Amber Naslund, authors of The Now Revolution, recommend fighting social media fire with social media water. For instance, if a faculty member posts a controversial video on YouTube, you may want to film a short video of your president’s apology and post it on YouTube, in addition to your institution’s standard approach.  This will help to address the same audience that originally viewed the errant post.

Professional media trainer Brad Phillips provides consulting services for Fortune 500 companies and is founder of Phillips Media Relations.  In his new book, The Media Training Bible, he recommends leading with:

  • I was wrong, I am sorry, I want to apologize for…

Ask for forgiveness, but not in a trite fashion. Give a value statement that refutes the social media post that got you in trouble. If you offended a group or an individual, you need to devalue your original remark after apologizing by correcting your statement with words such as “everyone deserves respect and value, and what I said was wrong.”

If the beef is only with one person, but they are choosing to broadcast it publicly, make your apology private and do it by telephone or in person, if possible. Don’t carry out private wars in public.

Remember that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.  As my grandmother always said, “Just because you apologize doesn’t mean the consequences will go away.” Even though your apology was sincere, people may still criticize you and you might still be under fire.  Fight the urge to fight back. Put your blinders on and get on with your life.

Two parting thoughts on apologies:

  • Remember not to use the phrase “if I offended anyone.” Of course you offended someone or you wouldn’t be apologizing. That’s code for “I don’t really think I did anything wrong and you stupid people are just oversensitive.”
  • Be careful of explanations—they can sound like excuses. After you apologize, don’t be afraid to dial down your social media presence for a while. It’s the social media equivalent of sitting in the corner. Don’t sass people who criticize you and don’t feed the trolls who are egging you on.

Do you have any tips on how to handle apologies online?

2 responses to “How to Nail the Social Media Apology

  1. Pingback: 3 Social Media Lessons Learned from Big Brand Blunders | MLT Group | MLT Group - Creative Solutions | Industry News·

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