Social media is a great tool to help build brand visibility and interact with customers on a public platform. However, keep in mind that it’s a conversation medium—not a place to whitewash your image. People expect brands to be human, which means the occasional mistake is bound to happen, yet there is still an inherent fear of permanent reputation damage on social channels. Companies are afraid that something bad will be forever captured via a screenshot or a social update, bringing down a firestorm of bad press that ruins the brand’s reputation for all time. As a result, knee-jerk apologies too often are the first response.

Take airlines, for example. Data gathered by Unmetric shows US Airways and American Airlines lead in the number of tweets that contained apologies. But when trying to engage with customers and humanize their brand, businesses may be doing more harm than good in constantly apologizing. When companies issue an apology for a split-second decision made on social media, they admit culpability. If they apologize too soon, they may be drawing negative attention to themselves from people who otherwise would have not paid attention had a friend not retweeted the apology or shared blog posts criticizing the response.

So, when should your brand apologize and how much? There really is no formula determining the optimal apology frequency and timing; it’s actually not that complicated. Offer an apology when you normally would in real-life situations. When online followers request an apology you may feel pressure to publicly acknowledge the mistake, but you’re really better off reacting to issues in a human fashion – without apologizing excessively or using what appears to be an “apology template” for response.

Airlines often face complaints from unhappy customers about flight cancellations and other travel-related incidents on social channels, but this applies to any company with a social presence. Why make an issue bigger than it actually is if no one seems to care? Saying you’re sorry for every little thing shows lack of pride in your work as well as lack of confidence, neither of which earns the respect of followers. Also, too many times brands take a “heads will roll” approach when they find themselves on the wrong side of a social mob that is homing in on one mistake.

The recent snafu with US Airway’s Twitter account is an example of making a balanced, human response to a negative event. When an employee accidentally shared an inappropriate picture with thousands of followers when replying to a tweet, US Airways took the high road. The airline apologized to followers and told them they took down the image—however, they didn’t succumb to the mob pressure to “fire someone” for the mistake. They took a more human approach by acknowledging the problem without making a big deal of it. They stood behind their employee, refused to fire them over it and moved forward.

That’s the kind of approach all brands should take on social channels. It’s conversation, and people should treat it as such. Make sure you have a social governance policy in place and deal with issues that come up in a way that reflects humanity. Not every mistake needs to be acknowledged with a public apology, and holding an axe over the heads of social employees engenders fear—not advocacy.

So take a look back at your social conversations over the past year. Are you apologizing too much? Are your employees armed with the confidence to advocate for you, or are they afraid of what will happen if they make a mistake? Managing your brand’s reputation on social is more about how you interact than trying to control how you appear. So tone down your apology filter and be as human as possible.

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