Newsy nibbles: a great example of a terrible apology

We Brits are famously prolific apologisers. Someone butts us with their shopping trolley in Tesco? “Sorry”, we say. A colleague knocks into us, spilling milky tea down our shirt? “Oh, sorry”, we whimper. A lunatic in a Range Rover backs over us (and the family dog), reversing multiple times for good measure? “So terribly sorry for getting in the way”, we gasp from the bloodied tarmac. And it seems that in the 21st century, you just can’t move for apologies, with the busiest sorry-sayers of all being public facing celebrities, businesses and organisations. But when is an apology not an apology?sticky note with apologyThis week, Mermaids - a charity for transgender children - has been in the news.  It’s had a privacy leak - well, more of a whopping great waterfall, in fact. The breach involves not only the personal information of people who have contacted them in the past, but also the explicit content of their communications... Personal, heartfelt, controversial, private concerns available online to the public. Yikes.But while it was a horrible accident with potentially huge repercussions for the users affected, it wasn’t a malicious act. Good intentions were simply thwarted by human error and technological ineptitude, so a heartfelt apology and sincere offer to make amends would surely go a long way to heal hurt feelings. Except, that’s not the approach taken by Mermaids.  Let’s look at the dodgy language in the apology statement (available in full here).The first part of the statement is solid. They lay out in clear terms what steps have already been taken in the wake of the leak, and what plans they have made to prevent future data breaches. This is all vital and encouraging information.But then, this:

“So the overall position is that there was an inadvertent breach, which has been rapidly remedied and promptly reported to the ICO, and there is no evidence that any of this information was retrieved by anybody other than the Sunday Times and those service users contacted by the journalist in pursuit of their story.”

Er, what’s that now? Did a panicked service manager just prise the keyboard from the grip of a competent PR professional in order to type this breathlessly snarky paragraph? Oh wait, there’s more -

“Finally, Mermaids apologises for the breach. Even though we have acted promptly and thoroughly, we are sorry.  At the time of 2016-2017, Mermaids was a smaller but growing organisation.  Mermaids now has the internal processes and access to technical support which should mean such breaches cannot now occur.”

Hmm. So… “Sorry not sorry”?Look at this one sentence again. I can’t take my eyes off it, actually:

“Even though we have acted promptly and thoroughly, we are sorry.”

I bet you haven’t heard an apology that heavily caveated since your brawling offspring were forced to sign a peace treaty on a long, miserable car journey.Mermaids, I’m sure your intentions are honourable, but maybe you could tell it to your face. And your words. Signing off an apology with, essentially, a retraction of the apology is not a good look. Remember, there are dozens - or even hundreds - of terrified parents right now, wondering who might have access to specific details of their children’s innermost turmoils and fretting over whether the leak could compromise their child’s safety.  Mermaids, here’s what you could have said:Looking back to our 2016 systems, it’s clear that we hadn’t yet developed the rigorous processes we have in place today. We apologise wholeheartedly for the error, and we are available to personally talk with anyone who has concerns that their data may have been involved. We are confident that a privacy breach will not happen again, with the strict internal processes and technical support we’ve now put in place.  We hold ourselves to strict standards, and we hope you can always trust in our relationship.  Please accept our heartfelt apologies and be assured that we have learnt from this mistake.What do you think? Which is better?

Becky KleanthousFreelance writer UK / writer for hire

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