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Social Mea Culpas: Why Your Online Reputation Matters

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Reputation has always mattered in business. Whether relayed via word of mouth, printed reviews, or online, a business’ success has always been at least partially reliant on their reputation and interactions with customers. Businesses that didn’t garner a good reputation were more likely to fail or at least find their client based dramatically reduced.

With the advent of social media and the increase of internet usage by the average individual, a business’ reputation has become even more important. Reputation is now shaped by online and personal interactions, as well as digital advertising, transparency, business practices, and more as it becomes easier for customers to find out more about a business and how it’s run than ever before. As information becomes easier to access, it also becomes easier to share. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on how the business operates within the digital sphere.

Recently, major companies have had to come forth and offer apologies for business practices that the general public objects to. Monoliths like Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb have offered up online apologies through social media, as have numerous smaller companies. While some of the apologies hit home and revitalized the company’s image, many did not, leading to further backlash. We’ve created this guide to help you understand how to successfully address social media mea culpas and begin restoring your company’s reputation.

Acknowledgment

Any relationship counselor will tell you that it’s vital to properly acknowledge mistakes before you can move past them. This advice carries over into the business world as well. The first step towards fixing any mistake is to acknowledge that the mistake occurred. This is often the most painful part but also the most important. Acknowledgment is vital for aligning your business with honesty and transparency, two qualities that are majorly important in our networked society. Information moves incredibly fast in the era of social media, so mistakes have to be acknowledged quickly, publicly, and thoughtfully.

In an interview with Forbes’ Jabez LeBret, social media expert Simon Heseltine commented on steps towards fixing a company blunder, stating: “You want to be as honest and open as you can be about situations. Obviously if there is an internal investigation following a controversy, you need to be careful about how much you put out there, but you want to have as much transparency as you can. Your users want this kind of transparency, and will respect you for it.” That respect can go a long way in repairing your reputation and setting you back on the right path with your client base.

Specificity

Just acknowledging the mistake isn’t enough, though. Throwing out a vague apology will do nothing but stoke interest in exactly what the mistake was and may end up further alienating your clients and therefore further trashing your reputation. As Heseltine noted, too much transparency may hurt you in the case of an internal investigation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be sincere and direct when putting out your apology.

Being intentionally vague or defensive can undo any good an apology may have done. As pointed out by Forbes’ Robyn Hannah, “By addressing a situation in a way that is straightforward, honest and authentically trying to make amends, companies can show integrity and demonstrate their corporate values.” And values are exactly what you’re trying to demonstrate. By acknowledging the mistake and what the mistake was, corporations can acknowledge that what happened was not in line with what their business model is and can put forth a sincere message asking for forgiveness and promising action.

As social media has progressed, it has allowed businesses to humanize themselves more than ever before, and customers now expect direct interaction that is more than just a pre-scripted, lawyer-like write-up that lacks depth and transparency.

Follow Through

Now that you have your apology out to the world, the next and longest step is follow through. No matter the mistake, there should be some way of fixing it. Just saying you’re sorry isn’t enough if the behavior or issue continues. Your reputation may get some benefit from just the first two steps alone, but it’ll quickly degrade if no follow-through takes place.

Reputation and sincerity go hand in hand, and nothing undermines sincerity like lack of follow-through. Even if you have beautifully crafted content and a killer social media strategy, your online reputation will crash without the behavior to back it up. With information moving as quickly as it does now, that reputation will spread, and the damage will be far more difficult to undo.

Successes

Image via Twitter by @Starbucks

There are some companies in the past few years that have produced some stellar online apologies that have done wonders to repair their tattered reputation. In 2015, Airbnb was facing a scandal that could easily have doomed the online vacation site: information came out suggesting that their hosts were racially profiling guests and denying stays to guests with “distinctively African-American names” 16 percent more often.

Airbnb could have blamed this on the hosts, but instead, they sent out a public apology for the behavior and crafted a stronger policy barring racial discrimination. They also promised to investigate why this was happening. Since 2015, Airbnb has been campaigning reform based on this incident with inclusive advertisement and emphasis on acceptance and transparency. Not only was their apology sincere, but their follow-through has also continued on, demonstrating the company’s commitment to change.

Starbucks faced a similar situation earlier this year. A racially charged incident not only lead to the company apologizing publicly and repeatedly but also saw them committing to further training and employee education. These moves showed sincerity and demonstrated corporate values, similar to Airbnb. Ultimately, the success of the apologies of these two companies rested on their willingness to admit something was wrong, promise change, and then follow through on that promise.

Apologizing for corporate mistakes is tricky, and doing it right can be difficult. However, your reputation relies on your ability to apologize effectively, especially as social media makes it easier than ever for information about missteps to be spread around. Getting a well-crafted and well-intentioned apology into the public sphere can make all the difference in restoring your reputation.

About the author

Megan Tilley