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You may recall an article we shared this summer about how not to respond to negative online reviews. The story that sparked that article was that of the Union Street Guest House in New York, and their unfortunate policy toward online reviews.

Quick recap: Page Six reported that a customer had posted a review online detailing an ordeal in which the hotel was threatening to fine them $500 if they did not get their wedding guests to take down negative reviews they posted of the establishment. This brought to light that this is one of the hotel’s actual policies, as posted on their website. Cue all hell breaking loose on social media.

In a first attempt to quell the firestorm, the hotel’s owner, Chris Wagoner, posted an quick reply on its Facebook page saying that the policy was just a joke:

“The policy regarding wedding fines was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago. It was meant to be taken down long ago and was certainly never enforced.” (Maximizesocialbusiness.com)

This, of course, did not help matters, as it is clear that someone was in fact trying to enforce it from the earlier customer’s report. The hotel’s Facebook page has since been taken offline completely.

And while this first attempt was a bit of a fumble, Mr. Wagoner did a much better job with his next – and more official – attempt at an apology:

“Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed. This indeed was a policy of the Union Street Guest House, it was originally intended as a joke and never something I told employees to enforce. However, since it was listed on our website it did represent an official policy. I now realize this joke was made in poor taste and not at all funny.” (CNBC)

So, what can you take away from this apology? There are a number of things that went right here, and can prepare you should you ever find yourself in a bad PR situation:

 1. Be sincere and vulnerable.
By admitting his feelings of embarrassment, Mr. Wagoner puts himself in a vulnerable position where he is much less likely to garner continued criticism. Even when someone has done something objectionable, we are less likely to continue to pile on them if we sense that they’re having an appropriate reaction. When Wagoner tried to shrug this off as a joke, he came off as arrogant and unsympathetic, and people felt compelled to force him to feel appropriately mortified by flaming him on social media.

2. Apologize – for real.
If you’ve ever received an insincere apology, you are aware of just how much worse that is than no apology at all. Anything that smacks of “I’m sorry if you were offended because you can’t take a joke” will only add fuel to whatever fire you’re trying to put out. Instead, admit that you were wrong, and cite specifically what you were wrong about. This lets people know that not only do you get it, you are unlikely to make the same mistake again.

3. Make it official.
For little errors (like sending a blank email or posting an expired promo code on Facebook) it’s appropriate to stick to the medium in which the mistake was made. If it’s an easy fix and the audience for your mistake was limited, go ahead and take care of it in the same place. However, when something goes viral and the audience has expanded well beyond the original viewers, it’s time to get serious and go public as well. Wagoner did post his official apology statement to Facebook, but reports indicate he released it to the larger media also. If you find yourself in equally hot water, make an official statement (preferably before posting an inappropriate reply to a Facebook post) that shows you appreciate the gravity of the situation and have taken the time to thoughtfully respond.

What other advice do you have for making an apology that can save your brand? Have you seen examples of companies doing a good (or bad) job with a PR nightmare? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

About the Author: Sarah Matista is the Content Marketing Manager at Webs, where she also manages marketing for Pagemodo – a suite of social media tools. Loves social media, branding, whales. Get more from Sarah on Pagemodo’s Blog and Google+.

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