The hardest word. Has 'sorry' lost all meaning?


by Magnus Shaw.

Last weekend the BBC screened an episode of 'Tweenies' on their CBeebies channel and a minor fuss broke out. I should point out I don't watch CBeebies habitually and have never watched a complete 'Tweenies' show in my life - but I was pointed to this clip by somebody on Twitter, and I can see why it attracted attention. In the programme, one of the Tweenies appeared as a sort of groovy DJ to an audience of teddy bears. So far, so innocent. Unfortunately, the DJ bore a distinct resemblance to Jimmy Savile. Oh. Oh dear.

In fact, the clip is nothing more than slightly surprising. To all but the most worldly kids watching, Max The Tweenie's persona would have meant nothing. Nevertheless executives at CBeebies were quick to leap in with an apology:

"This morning CBeebies broadcast a repeat of an episode of the Tweenies, originally made in 2001, featuring a character dressed as a DJ impersonating Jimmy Savile. This programme will not be repeated and we are very sorry for any offence caused."

The broadcast was clunky error, to be sure. One would expect someone at the channel to have checked the content of the show before transmission. Maybe they did and failed to recognise the impression. Either way, save for a bit of embarrassment and a great deal of chuckling across Twitter on a snowy Sunday morning, little harm was done. So what were the BBC apologising for? Not for making the programme. It was put together twelve years ago. Not for scaring the kiddywinks - they were, I'm sure, completely oblivious. The Corporation say it was for 'offence' caused. But as far as I can see, there were no complaints from deeply outraged parents. So in truth, the apology was simply a knee-jerk reaction for a trivial mistake, and it's hard to see what good it will do. It can't reverse time and un-show the episode, and the flustered announcement could easily draw youngsters' attention to the programme, leading to awkward questions for mum and dad.

The night before the Tweenies broadcast, hundreds of travellers spent the night on the hard, unforgiving floor at Heathrow. As expected, a few centimetres of snow had devastated the UK's infrastructure leaving many passengers booked onto BA flights without luggage, a flight or the slightest clue as to what was occurring. BA closed their help-desk at about 9.00pm and switched off their helpline an hour earlier. I listened to angry, bewildered and exhausted souls calling radio stations to express how abused, abandoned and unappreciated they felt by our national airline. Quite what British Airways were playing at we can only guess - but it was obvious they had failed their customers in a quite spectacular way.

By Sunday the airline had issued an apology:

"We are doing everything we can to help customers whose flights have been disrupted by severe weather and we fully apologise for the inconvenience caused to their travel plans."

Again, the apology held little water. BA's claim to be doing everything possible to help is manifestly disingenuous, they weren't. And, if they were genuinely sorry for the problems, they would have taken effective action, which they didn't.

Happily, I wasn't using Heathrow over the weekend, but had I been caught up in the chaos, the official apology would have sounded like a bad joke. What I would want to hear is a solid re-assurance that I would never be treated so shoddily again, acknowledgement of wretched incompetence and an offer of substantial compensation. I fear I'd be waiting a long time. So, it seems BA are using a word they don't really mean in the hope it will smooth over some terrible customer service. That's a pretty cynical hope.

These two circumstances are very different from each other. The BBC made an unfortunate slip in a very sensitive climate and attempted to fix it with the 'S' word. British Airways cocked up on a grand scale at time of great customer need and did the same. However, both occurrences resulted in meaningless apologies.

At a time when Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is a buzz-phrase permeating so many industries and meeting rooms, it appears 'sorry' is now viewed as a catch-all strategy when something goes wrong. Is that really the best they can do? Do organisations really imagine people are that pliable, that unsophisticated? Well, I have some news for CRM professionals. When a problem rears up, there's almost no point in apologising unless you can back that up with facts, truthful explanations, useful information and robust action. On the other hand, you may want to consider whether issuing endless strings of contrite statements actually makes you appear nothing but clueless and insincere.

Sorry, but that's the way it is.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant


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