Why business leaders saying “sorry” so often fails to land

“I am deeply apologetic”

Apologies is just not his thing

claimed Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley about his “personal actions”. He meant a series of mistakes in handling his company’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Later he had second thoughts and sent an open letter apologising to his numerous staff in various organisations:

“Our emails to the government were ill-judged and poorly timed, when they clearly had much greater pressures than ours to deal with”

Despite Ashley’s claim to be “deeply apologetic” he came across as unconvincing. That’s because he’s so often in the news over questionable corporate behaviour. He’s now the UK’s poster boss for running a company short on ethics.

To his critics, Ashley lacks integrity. They point to how he and his top team seem regularly to “do what’s wrong”. Rather than “what’s right.” Apologies from Ashley or his team seldom land well.

A cop out

Anguished corporate regrets such as Ashley’s are a “cop out”. They’re a verbal device to avoid real responsibility. There’s no sense of a genuine, heartfelt regret. Instead, the apology smacks of manipulation, probably based on doubtful PR advice.

Not that Ashley is alone in trying to hide behind a public apology, rather than following a reliable moral compass. Non-apologies tend to ring conspicuously false when filled with ifs, buts, hedges, deflection, qualification, self-absorption, euphemism, defensiveness, and obfuscation.

Thanks to the internet, corporate apologies now look, feel, and sound different. They come in ways unimaginable, even just a decade ago.

For example there’s the teary-eyed confessional on YouTube; the long-winded company blog post; the low value voucher offering to make amends; and the costly media blitz of full pages expressing regret.

Some years ago, so many corporate executives expressed regret for offenses that critics branded it “the summer of apologies.” Numerous leaders begged pardon for unreliable flights, bad phone service, tyre blowouts and much more. The pattern continues.

Boeing, Boeing Gone

Chicago lawyer Bob Clifford has spent most of his legal career chasing Boeing through the courts. He has publicly branded the plane maker:

“… one of those companies that is incapable of acknowledging accountability, is incapable of telling people they’re wrong and they’re sorry. They pander to the idea of being sorry”.

Despite access to the best PR advice the US plane corporate giant seems bent on shredding any residual reputation for “doing what’s right” or acting with integrity.

Boeing CEO makes public apology

For example, it’s ex CEO Dennis Muilenburg made a public apology at congressional hearings in October 2019 over the two recent air accidents. But he repeatedly dodged questions about whether Boeing had failed to disclose any known plane defects. Put on the spot over airplane development he quibbled with “the premise of the question”.

This all turned out badly. Unsurprisingly, this led to his forced departure from the company.

Turning an apology into a reality

For corporations facing public criticism, the default response is just to say sorry. Seldom accompanied by convincing remedial action such expressions of regret fail to land. Business leaders need to learn how to make their public expressions of regret count. Seven essential practices can help.

1      Accept responsibility

No matter who caused the adverse behaviour or experiences, ethical business leaders accept responsibility. They do this even when someone else behaved badly.

wells Fargo
Drop in for a quick swindle

In contrast when Wells Fargo was caught running a massive fraud on its customers, senior managers appeared to deny any responsibility for the bad practices which had lasted under their watch for years, not months. The lesson is to avoid offering excuses for why the company did what was wrong.

2      Acknowledge their pain

It’s about them, not you.

People on the receiving end of corporate misbehaviour don’t want to hear self-absorbed leaders declaring how bad they feel about what has happened. Victims of corporate damage need to know that their pain has been recognised and understood.

Hayward of BP agonises

For example BP’s CEO Tony Hayward’s apology for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is now part of failed apology folklore. He speculated, blamed others, relied on stereotypes and was generally ill-equipped throughout.

One memorable comment now ranks as one of the worst corporate apologies of all time. Hayward declared sorrowfully that : “I’d like my life back.” He thought that people might want to hear how the accident affected him. They didn’t.

3      Don’t minimize the problem

Downplaying the impact of hurtful corporate conveys the message:

“Your troubles aren’t that important to us.”

Just a minor bit of “re-accommodation”

For example, a passenger waiting to take off from Chicago O’Hare airport was filmed being forcefully removed from the plane. This triggered a communications meltdown for American Airlines.

The airline tried explaining the incident away. It claimed that the passenger was selected at random for ‘involuntary denial of boarding.’ In plain English that meant it he was forcibly ejected from the plane.

United’s CEO later described the incident as “re-accommodation”. This word-play failed to acknowledge that a passenger was injured while being dragged from the flight. “Re-accommodation” belittled the severity of what had happened. This single word robbed the apology of its credibility .

For example, after the Cambridge Analytica data breach, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg chose to pen a 900-word statement.

Yet it still took the company multiple tries, after Facebook’s stock plunged, for Zuckerberg to finally say: “I’m really sorry.” By the time it happened the only sensible response was: “But is he?”

To sum up, don’t elaborate and explain unacceptable action. This just weakens the apology

4.    Don’t over promise

After a manager at a Starbucks Philadelphia branch was accused of racially profiling two businessmen having a coffee meeting, the company’s apology received widespread praise. Not only did Starbucks say sorry in a sincere and unequivocal way. Management even vowed to close down 8,000 stores to conduct anti-bias training.

The Coffee company’s chairman though went further. He claimed they would never repeat the same mistake again. He promised that his staff would make the right decision “100% of the time.”

While well-meaning, the comment set unrealistic standards of conduct. It exposed the staff to intense scrutiny and pressure. Later the policy had to be revised.

5.     Move fast to remedy

Carrol’s musical revenge

After months trying to win compensation from United Airline for smashing his guitar in transit, musician Dave Carrol posted on-line a funny and catchy song about it. Within four weeks United Airlines’ stock price plunged 10%, costing stockholders about $180 million in value. 

The video went viral amassing 20 million views. His two follow-up videos continued the attack causing a PR disaster for the Airline.

Belatedly, United’s boss personally contacted Carrol to apologise and offered to put things right. By then though, others’ had cashed in on the publicity. A leading guitar distributor donated Carrol two free guitar replacements.

Today UA uses the story as a case study for retraining its staff in how not to handle complaints. Just a pity that it took so long, and with so much damage to the Airline’s reputation.

Coke denial

Not everyone loves Coca Cola

Another classic of belated apologies occurred when Coke’s European customers complained that its products were making them sick. Chairman Ivester made his big mistake right at the start. 

He and company executives based in Brussels initially played down the problem. They dismissed as unfounded the widespread complaints of nausea and headaches. They insisted that Coca-Cola’s drinks could not possibly pose a health hazard.

Only in response to the growing public outcry—and, more importantly, to bans placed on Coke products by the governments of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—did the CEO back-track.

Up against it, he finally promised to investigate the problem thoroughly. Better late than never, the CEO finally apologized.

So what does work when it comes to corporate apologies? Here are some of the ways to do it.

ACKNOWLEDGE THE ISSUE

Admit that you or the company did something wrong; don’t deny or rebut. Whatever the screw up or misspoken language, show you recognise you or the company have done damage. It’s a step along the path toward reconciliation.

ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY

By accepting full responsibility for the situation, you restore dignity to those you hurt. This can begin the healing process and shut down any further victim-blaming

MAKE AMENDS

Some companies love to send annoyed customers a low cost voucher they can spend next time. Make sure your offer won’t provoke a response such as “Is that all?”

SHOW VULNERABILITY

Admitting fault or accepting blame need not be a sign of weakness. Showing vulnerability, says you or your company are human. That’s a strength, not a weakness.

LET’S MOVE ON

What happens if none of the above works? A favourite device used by politicians and sometimes business leaders is to acknowledge something’s gone wrong, but that: “it’s “time to move on.”

It’s a useful phrase when an unhelpful story refuses to go away and all other approaches have been exhausted.

When saying it though, it’s important to get the tone right. Make it sound polite and heartfelt–an honest plea to your critics to focus on more important matters that are in danger of being forgotten.

You can’t afford to sound bored or irritable. Otherwise people may take it as shorthand for “shut up and leave us alone.”

FINAL THOUGHTS ON WHAT WORKS

  • Don’t apologize for anything for which you’re not sorry
  • Never apologize unless you are accountable
  • Apologize only to those hurt or their legitimate heirs
  • Never link an apology to any future settlement
  • Never blame others in your apology

Conclusion

There are benefits from giving prompt apologies, supported by practical remedies. So why do business leaders often fail to apologise or do it convincingly?

Their reasons can be individual or institutional. Public apologies can be personally uncomfortable and even professionally risky for a leader. They may worry that the admission of a mistake or wrongdoing will damage or destroy the organization for which they are responsible.

There may be good reasons for hanging tough. Yet this is a high-risk strategy which may prove both personally costly and corporately destructive.


Links to others sources:

https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/brands-that-admitted-their-mistakes

https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2018/10/24/10-powerful-examples-of-corporate-apologies/#1394f6540de7

https://www.creativebloq.com/features/the-good-the-bad-and-the-wtf-of-brand-apologies

https://hbr.org/2006/04/when-should-a-leader-apologize-and-when-not

https://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/should-business-leaders-apologize-why-when-and-how-an-apology-matters/

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