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?