Sorry tale

It’s been a busy time in crisis communications. From corporate tax to horsemeat in burgers, you can hardly open a newspaper without coming across yet another full-page mea culpa.

These printed apologies demonstrate one thing very clearly – when a company has its back against the wall it turns to words not pictures. Photography can be a powerful way to communicate, but the gravest situations demand an argument not an image.

Yesterday’s big adpology came from SSE (formerly Scottish and Southern Energy). It was published in response to a report from energy regulator Ofgem which described the company’s mis-selling of energy as ‘prolonged and extensive’. SSE has been fined £10.5 million – a record penalty for an energy supplier – and it has set aside a further £5 million for customer compensation. Trading Standards had already given the company a £1.25million fine for mis-selling.

The piece follows the standard format for corporate apologies: plain white background; headline; a few very short paragraphs of copy; a logo. The message comes from the company as a whole, rather than a named individual such as the chief executive (an issue I intend to return to in a future post).

The headline is rather puzzling to me. ‘Sorry isn’t good enough’ is a tight corner in which to place yourself when writing to apologise for something. And the phrase is telling the reader what’s good enough or not, when it’s up to them to decide. I think the point SSE is trying to make is this: ‘we know we need to do more than just apologise; we must now do things differently’. But as we all know from our own personal errors in life, you need to say sorry before you describe what you’re doing to make amends.

The first sentence then says: ‘the way we sold energy to some people in the past wasn’t good enough’. That’s two things that aren’t good enough, which I find confusing. And isn’t ‘good enough’ an odd way to describe what went on? Why not simply say ‘what we did was wrong’?

We do reach a ‘wrong’ in the second sentence. But its power is diluted by the three words before it: ‘We weren’t alone’. It reminds me of the day I had to explain to my headmaster how a window had become deglazed through the over-exuberant use of a football. ‘But it wasn’t just me’ didn’t go down too well as an opening line then, and to me it feels too early in this statement to make the shared blame point. Besides, does the fact that others were doing something wrong make what SSE did less blameworthy? I’m not sure I would have referred to others at all.

And so we get to ‘And we’re sorry’, which should have been the second critical moment in the statement after ‘we were wrong’. But ‘sorry’ has been subverted by the headline, so as a reader I simply passed on and didn’t register the apology.

The ‘it’s easier to say that/It’s harder to mean it’ phrase is an inelegant way to move from words to deeds. It could be misread as ‘SSE has found it hard to feel apologetic’. The words/deeds point is a vital turning point in many apology statements, but the transition here seems rather laboured.

The piece picks up once it moves into the actions they’ve taken. The three-point list of measures provides evidence of change. Jargon such as ‘customer-facing staff’ seems rather cold and might alienate some readers. The energy sales guarantee sounds like a crucial change but I’m left wanting to know more. How does it provide peace of mind? An extra sentence on that might have added substance. There again, the brevity of the piece is appropriate.

The promise at the end works quite well. I would have made the final sentence its own line – I think it’s too important to be a follow on. But it’s right that the piece doesn’t try to turn the end section into an upbeat message. Unfortunately my eye always swings back to headlines, so I end with the ‘sorry isn’t good enough’ sentiment.

All in all, the company seems keen to convey important points, but I’ve had to work hard as a reader to follow the progression of those points. Sometimes ‘sorry’ seems to be the hardest ad.


PS Fellow 66000er Tom has written his own rumination on sorry over here.

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