“It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it.”

That admonition from my mom echoes in my mind even today, decades after I heard it for the first time. I learned when I was very young that while my words have meaning, my tone and body language could mean the difference between having an apology accepted and having one very angry mother.

I think there’s a chance that some CEOs didn’t learn this lesson from their mothers. Or maybe they learned it and then forgot it sometime between the playroom and the boardroom. Sure, they say, “I’m sorry,” a lot, but again, it’s not what they said…

So what is it? It’s where they are, it’s how scripted they seem, it’s whether or not you believe they’re actually sorry.

I travel a lot. I know what it’s like to sit on a taxiway and hear a pilot say your 22nd in line for takeoff. I understand the frustration of being stuck in a seat waaaaaaay in the back of a plane, and having to watch as everyone else takes their steamer-trunk-size carry-ons out of the overhead bins ever so carefully while you are left to wonder if you’ll deplane in time to make your connection.  I can imagine those frustrations are multiplied by approximately 200 when a planeload of people is expected to wait on a plane for 7 HOURS within site of an airport but with no way to get inside. I feel frustrated for them just hearing about it.

This happened recently to a bunch of JetBlue passengers. And the COO says he’s sorry.

Or does he say he’s sorry? He says he’s sorry JetBlue let people down, but not necessarily sorry it happened. Is that supposed to be implied? He says JetBlue will cooperate with government investigations, and conduct internal investigations to learn from this event. But someone at JetBlue should have known that this recent apology would be watched alongside previous apologies… that pretty much promised the exact same thing.

JetBlue gets points for responding. They did not ignore the problem. But they could have done better in the execution of the video apology. So, what can the rest of us learn from this?

1. If you must apologize, be genuine… not affected genuine, but truly genuine. Do I believe the COO of JetBlue works in a cube farm where he perches on desk corners? No. Leave the guy at his desk. That’s where he lives. That’s where he solves problems, or tries to at least. “We did not deplane these aircraft in our target time allotted,” he said. PEOPLE SAT ON PLANES FOR 7 HOURS! So, say to those people, “We know some of you sat on planes for seven hours!” Know your audience, and the language they need to hear. You’re saying the same thing, but one version is corporate-speak and one version is people-speak.

2. Don’t just apologize for upsetting people, apologize for what happened to those people. Talk to them so you can understand their frustration. They’ll like it when you listen.

3. It’s good to promise to change what went wrong, but only if you then change what went wrong. And if you fail to change what went wrong and you’re forced to apologize for the same thing again a few years later, you’re going to look even dumber than if you hadn’t made the promise in the first place.

Interested in more CEO video apologies?  Check out this Wall Street Journal blog post. You can watch the good, the bad and the really ugly.

Need a tool to easily and quickly record your own videos (apologies or not)? Check out ENERGIZED Testimonials. You record from your laptop. We make you look good. And you get a video; no fancy camera or editing equipment required!)

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