Social Media and the Legal Ramifications of Saying "I'm Sorry"

I spent nearly 10 years of my professional life apologizing.

"I'm sorry your flight was delayed."
"I'm sorry your bag did not arrive as scheduled."
"I'm sorry that your flight attendant wasn't as helpful as he could have been."

Then there are some of the more memorable apologies:

"I'm sorry you got off of your flight in the wrong city and lost $500 gambling in Las Vegas while you were waiting for the next flight to L.A."
"I'm sorry that the Oreos we served on your afternoon flight got in your teeth and made it awkward for you to chat with the person sitting next to you."
"I'm sorry you spilled red wine on your white Ralph Lauren suit and then dropped your glasses in the toilet while you were trying to clean yourself off with a maxi pad and a can of club soda."

Southwest Airlines is one company that is not afraid to say "I'm sorry." A recent article in the Dallas Morning News highlighted the airline's efforts to proactively apologize when things go wrong, before the customer even has a chance to file a complaint. An entire team of people at the airline monitor daily operations to identify irregularities. When something goes wrong, they craft an apology and a researched explanation, and send it to the customer within 24 hours of the occurrence.

It was, in fact, my two years of training in the Southwest Airlines Customer Relations Department a decade ago that made my transition to social media so natural. The experience armed me with the knowledge, language and tools to communicate with customers on a personal level and truly address their concerns, which, without fail, almost always begins with an apology.

Working with other organizations now, I'm baffled by how many simply refuse to say the "s-word." Legal teams are quick to redline blog posts, tweets, and comments, changing the words "I'm sorry" to "we regret," sterilizing messages, and essentially taking the "social" out of "social media."

A lawyer at a recent cocktail party, however, assured me that not only is an apology not going to be a deciding factor in a court of law, studies show that an apology is 85 percent more likely to keep you out of court in the first place.

You'll have to slap a Tom Scott "Journalism Warning Sticker" on that statistic, since I don't know the source, but Southwest Airlines' willingness to say "I'm sorry" combined with its consistently high customer service ratings and profitability suggests there may be something to it.

If your legal team is hindering your social media success, and you would like to continue this conversation at SXSW next March, visit the SXSW Panel Picker and vote for The Legal Ramifications of Saying "I'm Sorry," in which a panel of career apologists and apologetic lawyers will discuss and debate the real risks of saying "I'm sorry," how companies like Southwest Airlines get away with it every day, and how to craft an air-tight apology.

For tips on other interesting SXSW panels in the running, see my top 100 reasons to attend SXSW 2011.