After days of protest for not doing so, Snapchat has finally posted an “apology” for failing to fix a known exploit which allowed hackers to expose the identities of millions of its users. We put “apology” in quotes, because it’s really not an apology at all -- in fact, it’s a perfect example of how a startup should not apologize:
We are sorry for any problems this issue may have caused you and we really appreciate your patience and support.
This apology is bad in at least three ways:
Never apologize using the passive voice. The passive voice subtly detaches the apologizer from what they’ve done wrong, and implies that it was a mechanical failure beyond their control.
Directly admit fault and accept blame. “Any problems” and “may have” are weasel clauses which imply that there is ambiguity around who’s at fault, and whether anyone was harmed. But when it comes to the Snapchat hack, millions were definitely harmed -- and that includes everyone who trusted Snapchat to protect their privacy, whether they were specifically exposed or not.
Sign the apology with the CEO’s name. It wasn’t just Snapchat that’s been criticized for not apologizing -- it was CEO Evan Spiegel himself, especially because he’s refused to do so when given the opportunity. So an apology from an anonymous “Team Snapchat” not only comes across as impersonal, it also suggests Spiegel himself still refuses to take ownership of the problem. (It’s possible he’ll do so in some more dramatic way soon in another venue, but even if so, this official blog post starts things off on a poor note.)
So in many ways, the controversy has been made even worse.
Here’s a classic guide for how to say you’re sorry and at least seem like you mean it, and be sure to read Vanessa’s interview with Digiday on Snapchat’s communications crisis. Expressing emotion and genuine regret is a fundamental test of character and leadership -- and, frankly, can speak to whether someone is qualified to be a CEO at all.