Instagram and the Classic Non-Apology

Chris Syme Owner/Partner, CKSyme Media Group

Posted on December 19th 2012

Instagram and the Classic Non-Apology

Over the last few days, Instagram catapulted themselves to the top of the worst PR mistakes of 2012. Like a movie that comes out right before the Oscars, they are now top of mind with the bloggers and reporters that write about the worst PR mistakes of the year. Happy new year, Instagram.

Yesterday, Instagram had a chance to make all things right. Their new terms of service angered users and non-users alike (I don’t use Instagram, personally) and the internet blew up with chatter causing the company to scramble for a response. Unfortunately, it was a classic non-apology. Chief Executive Kevin Systrom said it's "our mistake that this language is confusing…Since making these changes, we've heard loud and clear that many users are confused and upset about what the changes mean.” There you go. Many users are confused. Ouch.

Systrom’s non-apology and deflection of blame to the public will ring in the minds of people well into the new year. Besides the fact that Facebook will now have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make money from its $1 billion dollar acquisition, Instagram is not going to be the darling of the photo app world anymore. Couple this with their decision to leave Twitter in the dust and you have a perfect PR storm.

Instagram would have been wise to use the “six word” approach. “We screwed up, we are sorry.” The classic non-apology has three elements that signal it’s not really an apology.

  1. Never accept blame for a mistake: Even in situations such as this where there is no liability, Instagram still didn’t admit they messed up.
  2. Always say you’re sorry that somebody else screwed up: This includes the classic “we are sorry that people misunderstood” or in Instagram’s case, “we are sorry that you are confused.”
  3. Never talk about how the problem will be fixed: To Instagram’s credit, they did put this language in their apology saying they are working on “updating” the language. But by violating the first two, their apology is already void.

It will be interesting to see what their next steps are. How would you advise them to proceed?



Chris Syme

Owner/Partner, CKSyme Media Group

Chris Syme's latest book, Practice Safe Social, is a leading resource on how to use social media responsibly. Her agency, CKSyme Media Group specializes in crisis and reputation communications, training, and social media services. See her website at Follow her on Twitter @cksyme


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Quit crying about it, sorry you didn't get the apology you were looking for, I don't think anyone was owed any apology.  The important thing his that Instagram responded to the backlash and respects the user base no matter how it was worded.  There's many companies out there who don't have that kind of respect for its users and make decisions regardless of how you feel. Take it how you want but I don't feel an apology was owed to anyone. 

Looks like I got a duplicate comment--just deleted.

Ross- You've got a very valid point from a consumer point of view. They listened. But it wasn't because they are a listening company. I'm not an Instagram user, so I wasn't looking for an apology. As a PR person, all I can do is comment on the way they attempted to apologize. And in the PR world, theirs was a classic "non-apology." I'm sure Instagram will survive. But their reputation has taken a hit. And when that happens, it doesn't take as much for people to leave them when the next thing comes along. 

I think Instagram may have respect for their customers because they don't want to lose them. The immediate change in terms of service we saw today is evidence of that. However, the wording of their apology indicates that they were an unwilling participant in the process. Not rocket science, not sour grapes, just basic PR. 

Great article, totally agree. Did they not state the new terms were partly to help reduce spam? I seriously cant see, nore was it attempted evero explain how that wording was supposed to restrict spam so from my perspective i felt even more their trust had been lostl i flet they were treating their users like idiots. It just seemed to me to be error upon error in terms of customer relationship magement. How wrong could they get it? Well that wrong!

also at least it's another fascinating text book example for us small businesses to learn from. 

Yes--I doubt small business would ever get away with this. Don't you think a smaller customer base causes you to be more careful and personal? Maybe not but I hope so.

I don't understand the point of your question. 

Smaller businesses don't have the luxury of tons of clients, ad dollars, etc. They rely a lot more on word of mouth so any little slip or customer service mistake is likely to have a bigger impact percentage-wise. 

Thank you for this post.  This is exactly what I thought when I heard the non-apology apology yesterday; I even tweeted about it.

The changes to the TOS were quite clear.  Instagram absolutely intended to use photos however they wanted to, up to and including using user photos without consent or compensation.  Then they turn around and blame their own community for not understanding it.  They got caught and tried to put the blame on their own community.  Not cool, Instagram.  A crappy way to treat your user base.


You said it exactly right--they got caught. It's too bad that when brands get caught they just don't admit it. I'm sorry for them. They had a great opportunity to phrase it differently and get some good will going, and they blew it.

While I'm not going to use the same tone as Ross, I tend to agree with him. Afterall they are only aligning with Facebook, and if you are user of Facebook you have more or less accpected these terms already. This article, which was posted on this site yesterday, fairly explains what is going on and is quite contradictory to this one in question. 

I guess the lesson to be learnt here is that many of the social platforms, that so many of us have enjoyed using for free, can't remain free forever. While they may not charge users directly, everything comes at a 'cost' right? After all, nothing in this world is free?! 

Thanks for giving your perspective. I just need to correct one statement you made, Sez. The original change to terms that Instagram announced Monday did not align with Facebook. Facebook has an opt-out for images to be used in ads and they were very vocal about letting users know that. Instagram, on the other hand, did not have an opt-out in their original change of terms and that's what most of the uproar was about. The lesson to be learned, in my mind, is that most people aren't aware of the terms of service of any platform they are using, and many don't care what their images and info are used for. In my practice, I have to watch those terms very carefully for my clients. My eyes and ears are probably tuned a little bit differently. Hope that makes sense. 

Chris, I apologize for how I started with my comment.  First thing in the morning while still laying in bed looking over my feeds not having coffe yet and after dealing with the issue all day yesterday I was out of place and that's no excuse.  I did come across agressive and I guess that's somewhat how I operate sometimes and was totally my fault.  

However, to respond to a few of the above comments there after; I don't see where Instagram was thinking it's users were "idoits". With such a large user base and including what how they were making changes in the TOS could have been a way speaking to all users that took the time to read them.  If it wasn't for the press and other sources we may never have noticed the changes.  For them to respond in such a short matter of time either because they've noticed the increasing rate of accounts canceling or the immediate reaction of everyone through the blogs/press they follow, they took all that into consideration.  Yes, they did have intentions to make these changes without a doubt.  They didn't get "caught" doing anything.  These changes were to take place in Jan. 2013, allowing more than enough time for users/consumers to make their decisions.  Getting caught to me would be, in the act of or thereafter.  They proposed a general change to be taking place and this was thier way to reach those users. There's not many "listening companies" out there period as I mentioned earlier.  When a company as big as them want to make a change, the last thing they do is ask the consumers "what they want?" and just make the changes.  

People are always going to move on to the next BIG thing regardless of bad PR.  Myspace vs Facebook? I don't recall there being a big fuss about anything Myspace was going to do to jeopardize user privacy.  Facebook came along it was seen as the new, and next BIG thing.  I will agree this did however hurt their reputation and leaves a spot in the back of everyone's minds when will Instagram make this change.  I'm sure all this will blow over sooner than later and it will still remain a bigger conglomerate for photo sharing tools.  All PR is not bad and sometimes helps a persons reputation in some ways, kind of makes people pay a little more attention to them but this case is a little different.  I just feel this was there way of making a speech and when it was made, and they felt the pain of the users, they handled it respectfully but was no attempt to apologize.  Chris, in no way did I intend to attack you and I apologize. As a marketing consultant and business owner I understand what they are trying to do especially since Facebook has bought them and I'm sure it will be a mirror effect of Facebook advertising based on the information we decide to share.    

No worries, Ross. That is what this forum is for--exchange of ideas. I welcome the passion of people here. Keep on reading and commenting!