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How to Atone for Your Social Media Sins

When you need to apologize, honesty is the best policy

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Have you regretted posting a comment on social media?

En español | On Twitter, it can be really, really hard to say you're sorry.

This lesson has been learned time and again by people who use social media, including the growing number of people over 50 who have joined in the conversation. This might be familiar to you: The anger at reading something infuriating, the shoot-from-the-hip response, the sudden escalation into a "flame war" and the realization that perhaps those flames need dousing.

And don't think that deleting the comment or tweet will solve the problem. Social media is forever. Tweets can be recovered, posts on other platforms can be screen-grabbed before you can delete what you wrote, and you never know when a wandering online robot or follower might just save what you've posted. "Erased" social media posts can get reposted by others ... and reposted ... and re-reposted.

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So what do you do when your flaming post suddenly starts a back blaze that's pointed at you?

Honesty is a good place to start. Consider the case of Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes — someone who should understand the perils of popping off on social media better than most people. His company creates a popular software package that allows users to monitor and schedule posts on multiple social media platforms through a single interface, so you might think he knew what he was getting into when he got into a little online tête-à-tête earlier this year with a Bloomberg News reporter.

After Bloomberg published a story about Hootsuite's valuation, Holmes complained in a tweet that the story had been filed prior to getting a comment from Hootsuite and that its headline was "salacious." The reporter responded, saying he had reached out to Holmes and that he'd still like to talk. Holmes tweeted back a phone number — for a phone sex service.

BuzzFeed found out about it, and you can pretty much guess what happened from there. Suddenly, Holmes was in a very bad place. He knew it and took action.

"The lesson I learned out of that is that when you screw up and you actually need to apologize, you apologize, you be transparent. You talk about how you're going to remedy it if you need to, you own it," Holmes told CNBC in an interview earlier this week. 

He's hardly the first executive to take that route. Social media apologies are so common that there's even a website dedicated to them. But how you apologize may turn out to be more important than the act itself. Here are a few tips from those who have been there.

  • Be sincere. Almost all professional social media advice starts here. "The direct approach is always the best," Peter LaMotte, a senior vice president for Washington, D.C., public relations firm Levick, wrote in 2014 in Ragan's PR Daily. "If you're sincerely sorry for an error made by you or someone in your business, say so directly.
  • Be brief. This should be self-evident, but it's especially true if you're apologizing on Twitter. Consider the case of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who took 13 tweets to apologize for an executive's wish to spend $1 million investigating journalists who wrote negative articles about the service. Of course, those tweets got responses, and soon a huge stream of noise cluttered up the attempt. It also didn't help that the journalist who was the focus of the executive's anger got an apology in the 13th tweet. (Kalanick recently resigned as Uber CEO and the executive who triggered the apology left the company earlier this month.)
  • Don't forget the lesson you just learned. If the apology is effective, people will tell you (or at least, they'll stop discussing the faux pas online). Still, "Social media doesn’t forget. In fact, your screwups are often posted and reposted to ensure they are permanently available online," Hootsuite content marketer Evan LePage noted in a recent company blog post. So you may have stopped the bleeding, but without learning a lesson at the same time, it might get repeated — and people can easily find the last social media issue you had.

All of this may make it seem like social media is a minefield waiting to be triggered, but it also may be the best way for you to keep up with friends and loved ones — especially if they're far away. All it takes is a little sense, a little caution — and the ability to apologize if you write something you almost immediately regret.

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