Sorry is such a loaded word. It carries significant weight. It’s a word we Brits are known to use for the slightest of inconveniences: a minor bump in the street or confusion over who was first in a queue. However, when it comes to corporate apologies, particularly now, there’s a stark contrast. Us Brits are becoming globally renowned for failing to deliver sincere and effective corporate apologies.

Sorry is a start

I feel the need to clarify. Sorry is not the be-all and end-all. Sorry alone is not enough. Sorry is the start. A sincere apology is merely the opening line. And some even get that opening line wrong.

Sorry is more than just the word. It’s the crucial starting point in the process of reconciliation and resolution. Unfortunately, many corporate apologies fail at this very first step. An apology that includes phrases like “sorry if I offended you,” “sorry if a mistake was made,” or “sorry you felt that way” is fundamentally flawed. These phrases do not acknowledge responsibility or the impact of the mistake. They deflect blame and invalidate the feelings and experiences of those who were wronged. They are not apologies at all. They are institutional defensiveness.

A genuine apology

A true apology needs to be unambiguous. It needs to acknowledge the specific wrongdoing. It should consist of:

Acknowledgement of the issue(s): Clearly state what went wrong without any conditional language.

Responsibility: Accept full responsibility for the mistake or harm caused.

Regret: Express sincere remorse.

Rectification: Explain the steps that will be taken to make amends.

Commitment to change: Outline measures to prevent future occurrences.

Poor corporate apologies

‘We regret any inconvenience caused’

‘We apologise if our actions were misunderstood’

Anything that looks and smells like institutional defensiveness IS institutional defensiveness.

When I'm wrong, i say i'm wrong

A national apology

Australia’s Sorry Day, which began with a national apology delivered by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008, acknowledges the historical mistreatment of Indigenous Australians, particularly the Stolen Generations. It was a landmark moment because it was unequivocal and heartfelt. It set a standard for how public apologies should be handled. And it was the start of a commitment to righting the many wrongs.

Getting sorry right
I hope a lot of internal emails have gone out in the last few days stressing the importance of transparency, competence, truth, integrity and a banishing to Room 101 of institutional defensiveness.

Corporations need to re-evaluate their approach to apologies. Employees at all levels should be trained to understand and implement these values. Apologies should not be seen as admissions of weakness but as opportunities to build trust and demonstrate accountability.
That said, to truly embody the spirit of a sincere apology, companies must move beyond mere words. Actions speak louder than words, and a commitment to change and improvement must follow any apology.