Instagram and the perils of an incomplete apology


Instagram, the popular photo-sharing service that Facebook bought this year, is the target of a storm of outrage on Twitter and other sites after the company announced Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 a change in its user agreement that hinted that it might use shared photos in ads. (Karly Domb Sadof/AP)
December 20, 2012

Earlier this week, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom followed in the footsteps of a long line of CEOs who’ve had to backpedal on announcements or apologize for product changes. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings reversed course on the Qwikster blunder. Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan dropped debit card fees just weeks after the charges were announced. Apple’s Tim Cook apologized for the quality of the company’s new mapping software on the release of the iPhone5.

What matters isn’t that CEOs reverse course on their strategies, pricing or changes—mistakes get made, markets can be misread and change is normal. What matters is how they do it. Hastings was ridiculed for his non-apology apology. Bank of America appears to have learned from the 2011 flap by shelving plans for further fees. And Cook’s apology—followed by the departures of executives involved with the product—was widely seen as going over well with consumers.

Systrom’s blog post, meanwhile, has been greeted with suspicion rather than satisfaction. Added after the controversy ignited Tuesday, the post sought to clarify new language to the photo-sharing app’s terms of service. The changes appeared to allow Instagram to use the community’s uploaded images without permission or compensation. Headlined “Thank you, and we’re listening,” Systrom’s post said users misinterpreted that “we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation” and that “it is our mistake that this language is confusing.”

Many remained skeptical. The post was called “arrogant” and “borderline condescending” for wording that said “many users are confused ... legal documents are easy to misinterpret.” Others questioned why the language said “it is not our intention to sell your photos,” rather than saying it “never will,” and worried this was another example of seeking forgiveness later, rather than trying to get it right upfront. Professional photographers planned to give alternate sites like Flickr another try. And even after Systrom’s clarification was posted, users continued to say on its Facebook page they were deleting their accounts.

Here’s the thing leaders need to understand about reversing course: It has to be done completely. Leave the door open that something similar could happen in the future, and you leave people questioning your commitment to the change. If you don’t offer a total apology for the confusion, users are less likely to embrace your response. (“It is our mistake” is different than “we are sorry for any confusion.”)

Finally, be careful not to leave too much time between the promise of further clarification—Systrom says Instagram is “working on updated language in the terms” and to “stay tuned for updates coming soon”—and results. Trust is a fickle and slippery issue that can vanish with surprising speed. The faster leaders can close the door on such controversies and move on, the better.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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