Experts scrutinize 2009’s most notable IT apologies

We asked Peter Goolpacy and the team at Perfect Apology to rate the quality of the apologies issued by top tech companies and executives this year for their assorted mistakes and misdeeds. The following contains their reviews of the apologies and their ratings of the apologies on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best.

Amazon Kindle apology. Perfect Apology (PA) rating: 8.5

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' apology for deleting illegally sold books from customers' Kindle devices, without any warning, was pretty impressive. Of course, his second apology to those whose copyrights the company abused by illegally selling these books is still pending -- no doubt for several reasons tied to ongoing litigations. The initial apology issued by Bezos was reinforced by additional apologies on the main Amazon web site -- together they satisfied many of the key ingredients we recommend throughout our site: acknowledging the stupidity of the error, taking full responsibility for the mistake, establishing new procedures to prevent unauthorized deletions in the future, and a refund to those who purchased the copies. Perhaps the most impressive part of this apology was the decision to change Amazon's deletion policy "so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances." Presumably, they continue to reserve the right to remove books from Kindles under different circumstances.There are two problems with the apology. First, Bezos could easily have conveyed a clearer appreciation of the harm done beyond simply acknowledging Amazon's stupidity -- the unauthorized deletions raise important issues tied to corporate control over personal property and privacy rights that must have seriously damaged the trust many Kindle users have in the company. Taking the books back was not the real problem (most users understood the importance of returning the 99 cent books) -- what really hurt was Amazon's decision to do this without any warning. The irony that one of the books in question was Orwell's 1984 was not missed by many.

Second, the apology certainly satisfied the important prerequisite of expressing regret and taking responsibility, but excessive self criticism (e.g., stupid, thoughtless, painful, self-inflicted, etc.) produces diminishing returns if not followed by some form of restitution -- in this case an immediate and "reasonable" refund. The question is whether the 99 cent refund was considered reasonable by most of the customers directly affected by the deletion. Once purchased (especially for only 99 cents) a book like Orwell's 1984 is far more valuable to the owner than the original 99 cents, so losing it was much more costly to them. Amazon's refund could have included a credit to defer at least some of the $9.99 cost to repurchase a legal copy of the book. This would have represented a more significant cost to Amazon and a clearer measure of responsibility and regret. However, judging by the responses on the Amazon blog, Bezos' apology seemed to hit the right note -- the replies were very positive.

Apple iPhone apology (Shaken Baby App). Rating: 7 for Apple; 0 for Sikalosoft

Apple's apology was brief and largely effective, because it probably controlled some of the damage. But its overall quality was affected by excluding any critique, warning or reprimand directed at Sikalosoft, both for the original app and then for the abysmal apology Sikalosoft issued in its defense. Apple could also have included at least some reference to correctives designed to prevent the inclusion of offensive applications in the future, or a commitment to monitor companies like Sikalosoft that continue to produce offensive apps. Simply deciding to drop the product, rather than issuing a threat to drop Sikalosoft, might appear insufficient to those who were offended. Now, in direct contrast to Apple's apology, the one issued by Sikalosoft made things worse by virtually dismissing the mistake with a joke -- "Okay, so maybe the Baby Shaker iPhone app was a bad idea….No babies were harmed in the making of Baby Shaker." Apple missed a good opportunity to improve its apology by slamming the one issued by Sikalosoft.

Pepsi iPhone app apology. Rating: 1

Pepsi's apology for its iPhone app, which offered advice for picking up women, received one of the lowest ratings by the PA team. The Twitter apology read -- "Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go2 get women. We apologize if it's in bad taste & appreciate ur feedback." This was an impressive 99 character long apology. Ironically, the problem with this tech apology was the limitations tied to the very technology used to send it. The app obviously offended some people, so it required a decent attempt at an apology, but it deserved much more than a tweet. Judging by this tweetology, the Pepsi PR guy is obviously not a Twitter genius capable of crafting the perfect 140 character mea-culpa. Twitter is probably not the best approach for sending business apologies, for many of the reasons we cover on our website -- if an apology is easy and painless, it's probably not heartfelt or credible. We're not saying it's impossible to use Twitter to say sorry; it's just much harder to do it well. But there was a far more serious problem with this apology, one that probably made things worse -- Pepsi made the common error of including the word ‘if' in an apology -- "we apologize if it's in bad taste." In other words, the apology applies only if we were too prudish or pompous to appreciate the humour. Telling those who were offended by the app that they screwed up, because they missed the point, is never recommended. So, for content, style and substance we give this one a 1 rating for at least including the following 11 characters "we apologize".

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