Saying ‘Sorry’: The challenges of apologising on Twitter

Guest Post from Dr Ruth Page

Dr Ruth Page is a lecturer in the School of English at the University of Leicester and has research interests in the use of stories in social media. Ruth published a paper earlier this year on the anatomy of Twitter apologies, looking at their distinctive components and their rapport building potential. Through this work she studied apologies from a number of corporate brands to discern the different strategies used. In this blog, she revisits these strategies and gives her perspective on their potential impact.

Many companies use Twitter accounts to provide customer support and outreach. Over the last few years, we have seen significant growth in the ways companies are becoming more conversational in their use of these accounts rather than simply using Twitter as a broadcast marketing tool.

As customer care conversation has grown in Twitter, one of its most frequent functions is to deal with complaints. My study of forty corporate accounts (that is, accounts that belong to a company rather an individual) showed that companies spend a considerable amount of time saying ‘sorry’.

There are obvious reasons for this: if a customer complains about a service or product in the public domain of Twitter it is damaging to the company’s reputation. An apology is the first step in putting things right.

But apologies can be made in different ways. My study showed various features that made ‘saying sorry’ a risky business for companies.  There are a number of features that were distinctive to apologies made by companies that raise the following questions. In a further iteration of the study, I specifically looked at the anatomy conversations for a large retail bank and large telecoms provider to understand how they handle these specific questions.

1. Do you restate the problem when apologising in response to a complaint?

Restating the problem when making an apology might draw more attention to the fault but avoiding doing so can appear impersonal and as if the company is not paying individual attention to the customer.

We found stark differences in approach between the two organisation I had focused on. The retail bank typically restated the problem (“I am sorry to hear you did not receive the service you should have. Which Belfast branch are you referring to?”), while the telecoms used ‘vague language’ to avoid restating the problem such as:


Telecomms tweet

2. Do you give an explanation for what has gone wrong?

Providing an explanation can be a way of legitimizing why the offence prompting the complaint has happened. Sometimes things go wrong for good reason, as in this retail bank’s apology.

Bank tweet

But denying the offence can seem as if the company are ‘passing the buck’, even if it is not the organization’s fault as in this example from the telecom company:


3. Do you provide reparation with the apology?

It’s not always appropriate or possible, but companies (more often than ordinary people) make amends by promising their customer some form of compensation for their trouble. This presents the company in a good light, but can (and should) this be done where it can?


4.  Do you make your customers do extra communicative work?

Unlike the apologies made by regular members of Twitter, companies very often ask the customer with the complaint to take further action, for example by asking them to email, call a helpline or fill in an online form.  Here’s an example from the large retail bank:



This is highly risky and breaks the communicative loop. Some companies, like this bank, then spend a lot of time trying to ensure that the customers get in touch.

Get in touch

But other companies (like the telecoms company I quoted earlier) never ask questions that follow up the customer experience at all. Why should it be up to the customer to follow up?


5. What style of apology should you make?

Some companies frame their apology by using greetings (like ‘Hi’) closings (like ‘Thanks’). They often use the person’s name and sign off with their own name or initials. Although this is very different from how people interact with other Twitter members (you don’t tend to use someone’s name on Twitter if you actually know them), this can make the apology seem more personal. But how far this personal, friendly style is appropriate depends also on the branding choices that a company wants to make. Is too friendly unprofessional?

Of course, whether these factors make an apology successful nor not is another matter. But they do provide a starting point for companies to begin to think through the risks and opportunities that are at stake in the PR work of handling complaints by making an apology.


Tonality and style is an aspect of communication through social media that Precise had examined through its post ‘How to avoid multiple personality brand disorder: a look at Virgin Trains’ earlier this year.

The pre-print of Ruth’s (2014) paper is also available from the Journal of Pragmatics. The presentation given by Ruth Page and Jeremy Levesley for Precise about the metrics used in measuring the language of apologies as part of AMEC Measurement week is on Slideshare.

Dr Ruth Page email: Email: Twitter: @ruthtweetpage