Terrible Corporate Apologies Product Managers Can Learn From

“I’m sorry.” Two tiny words. Two tiny words that said the right way can help repair broken trust, and said incorrectly can burn bridges forever.

Brought to you by the marketing department at Pepsi

Business school didn’t teach me the art and science of how to apologize appropriately and effectively. (That’s something life and server outages have drilled into me.) Judging from some of the corporate apologies we’ve seen recently, we all have a lot still to learn.

Today, we’ll look at three examples of truly terrible ways to apologize. Next time, we’ll discuss the elements of a truly great apology–and see if the major outage we had this week on the product I lead yields any lessons that could benefit product managers who finds themselves in a similar situation.

Outages Happen

As Ben at MailChimp points out, server problems are embarrassing, interruptive, and happen to everybody. The question is, how to properly address them…

Some Truly Terrible Ways To Say, “I’m Sorry”

What makes up a truly terrible apology?

Inappropriate Tone

Hosting service Dreamhost accidentally over-billed nearly all of its customers in early 2008. This made their customers angry. Josh at Dreamhost blogged about the problem once it was uncovered, and provided a very detailed recount of what had happened. But chose a humorous tone in his apology, which–not surprisingly–didn’t sit well with over-billed customers who wanted to be taken seriously.

Hint: Any time you plan to include a picture of Homer Simpson with your apology — that’s a strong indicator that you’re heading for #apologyfail.


Pepsi released an iPhone app recently that helped guys brag about their sexual escapades. When Pepsi was labeled sexist, they pulled the app and tweeted what could be the most embarrassing corporate apology I’ve ever seen:

Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women. We apologize if it’s in bad taste & appreciate your feedback. #pepsifail

First, they’re using text speak, which is simply an inappropriate language choice–a good apology demands a certain level of respect for the audience. Second, their apology has no empathy–there’s no indication they feel your pain–and lacks even a trace of them taking responsibility for their actions–they didn’t do anything wrong; it’s your fault for not having a sense of humor. Thirdly, they hashtagged their apology.

Nothing says “I’m sorry” better than self-referential metadata.

Empty Actions

Apologizing in person to people you’ve hurt might seem like a tremendous act of contrition…

Unless you’ve essentially swindled millions of dollars out of hard-working students for your business that’s about to declare bankruptcy. If that’s the case, your dogeza apology is going to be rejected because it doesn’t fit the circumstances: These customers don’t want bows, they want their money back.

Next Time

Those are three examples of truly terrible apologies. Have more? Please share them in the comments.

Next time, we’ll discuss the elements of a truly great apology. And see what we can learn from the experience I had apologizing to thousands of confused, angry, and irritated customers earlier this week…

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6 thoughts on “Terrible Corporate Apologies Product Managers Can Learn From

  1. Nice post. I remember reading that DreamHost “apology” letter. Good thing they were quick to send my refund, but I left them after I received that email.

  2. Not to defend Pepsi too much here, but they could have just been using the hashtag as a way to reach the core audience. If everybody out there complaining about Pepsi is watching that hashtag, then an apology aimed at those people is most effective on the same conversation thread.

  3. Chris,
    Excellent reminder on how to handle an embarrassing situation. As I was reading I kept thinking back to the 1994 debacle with Intel and the floating point error. Intel, after some arm twisting acknowledged the floating point issue. Rather than fess up they proceeded to denigrate their user base by claiming it was not serious and would not affect most users. To resolve the issue they then required proof before replacement. http://bit.ly/4tHbuK. Ultimately they did finally get it but by then they had more problems than a minor processor error.

    As I was searching to refresh my memory I came across a couple of other more recent apologies and how not to handle courtesy of Intel.

    Hopefully I will never have such a situation, but if i do, I may just seek out Intel cases and do the opposite.

    I look forward to your suggestions on how to handle such a tricky situation.

  4. @Patrick – I can concede that point. But it still feels very cheap to me. Given the attention they were getting, wouldn’t their response have been retweeted by folks and appended with the appropriate hashtag anyway? It feels like Pepsi was trying 2 hard 2 be hip, and missing an opportunity to engage in a real dialog in a more appropriate venue.

  5. One of the issues with corporate apologies is legal liability. A lot of companies don’t or can’t explicitly say sorry for something because of the potential law suits that can arise because the apology could also be seen by courts (and litigious citizens) as admission of liability.

    I doubt the Pepsi example could have resulted in any legal liabilities, but who knows. There have been successful lawsuits for much less.

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