Last month, Oscar Munoz was named Communicator of the Year by the publication PRWeek. This week, the United Airlines CEO was pilloried for his artless reaction after a passenger was dragged off one of his fights. Despite his recent award, Munoz seems to have forgotten two of the most impactful words in communications: I’m sorry.

This isn’t about public relations, spin or covering yourself. (Lawsuit coming.) It’s not about whether to apologize but how to, something that’s fundamental in life.

An apology has been called the super glue of life. It can fix just about anything. But to mend a rift or heal bruised feelings, you have to do it properly.

The same principles apply whether you did harm to a friend or your organization messed up. To be meaningful, saying sorry has to include the 3Rs of regret, responsibility and remedy according to psychotherapist Beverly Engel, author of The Power of Apology.

1. Express genuine regret for having caused hurt or damage, regardless of your intentions.

2. Accept responsibility, which means no blame or excuses.

3. Show willingness to remedy the situation, by a promise to not repeat a behaviour and/or in a material way (e.g. compensating customers or offering to pay to clean the carpet after you spilled wine at a friend’s dinner party).

Apologies don’t count for as much when they seem forced because of private or public pressure. A pseudo apology is even worse: “I’m sorry if you were offended.”  All that does is imply that the other person’s reaction and not your action created the problem.

Sometimes, you only get one real chance to apologize. Munoz missed it. Yes, he did eventually (in the face of a backlash) say “This can never – will never – happen again on a United Airlines flight. That’s my premise and that’s my promise.”

But that was only after initially defending the “established procedures” when flights are overbooked, and referring to the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent”. Strike one. He said the incident was upsetting, but was referring “to all of us at United” and not to the passengers. Strike two. Munoz also apologized “for having to re-accommodate these customers”, which (in the awful corporate-speak) missed the point. Strike three.

This isn’t to pick on United. Although PRWeek’s editor did get in a shot: “It’s fair to say that if PRWeek was choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz.”

What happened to United simply reminds us that in business and interpersonal communications saying sorry is paramount. You don’t do it to score PR points. You do it because of sincere empathy and respect. Not only can that lead to forgiveness, it can also build trust.

Done right, the 3Rs of apology make a fourth R possible – repair.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

April 13, 2017


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