Whether you’re managing risk communications for a Fortune 500 corporation or addressing a recent issue with your partner, you’ve likely found yourself in a situation where an apology is in order.

Done correctly, a sincere apology can help reestablish a trusted relationship and allow parties to move past a mistake, even a grievous one.

But you don’t have to browse through an overwhelming number of social media threads to find examples of apologies gone wrong.

A poorly constructed apology is often worse than no apology at all.

And before you say “I’m sorry you feel that way,” be aware that audiences today will identify a nonapology apology (aka the nonpology, fauxpology, or backhanded apology) before the words leave your mouth (or Twitter feed).

Major Elements of an Effective Apology

If you’re going to issue an effective apology, you have to do the following five things:

• Admit to the mistake, harm, or offense.

• Accept ownership and responsibility.

• Apologize (this may seem obvious, but we bet you’ve seen more than one “apology” where the apology itself seems to be in short supply).

• Show authentic and sincere empathy.

• Promise a future that will not repeat the past.

Bonus Elements

In addition to the major elements above, the following guidance will make your apologies even more effective.

• Provide evidence of regret, remorse, sorrow, and penitence (for example, offer compensation or resources).

• Be timely (a late apology or one that appears to have been forced by an outside element loses power).

• Give power (for example, oversight) to the offended party.

Flowers never hurt, but the elements above will give you a better chance of getting back on track after a misstep.

Pathway Prompt: Think of an apology that you mishandled. What did you do wrong?

Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide

More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication.

This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.

The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice. More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing info@pathwaycommunication.com.

Dr. Vincent Covello

Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books.