I’m Sorry I am Writing (AGAIN) About Apologies….
04 November 2008
Middle French or Late Latin; Middle French apologie, from Late Latin apologia, from Greek, from apo- + logos speech — more at LEGEND
1 a: a formal justification : DEFENSE b: EXCUSE 2a2: an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret <a public apology>3: a poor substitute : MAKESHIFT
So what? You ask.
The topic of corporate apologies is something I wrote about earlier in the year, but I feel compelled to revisit the matter, after reading a piece in the October 21 issue of USA Today entitled, “Why ’sorry’ isn’t in many CEOs’ vocabularies anymore.”
The take-away of the story was as follows: “As the world comes to grips with the biggest financial crisis in seven decades, the mea culpa machine has ground to a halt. Apologies, encouraged in recent years by the crisis-management industry, have dried up — even apologies deployed as a business or political strategy.”
First, I am not so sure I agree with this. I have seen no quantitative data to support such a conclusion.
But the following passage is what caught my attention:
Companies have found that heart-felt apologies can decrease the likelihood of lawsuits if they’re well crafted and don’t come off as “Sorry I got caught,” but express regret, assume responsibility and map out a plan to avoid repeating the offense, says Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at public relations firm Weber Shandwick and a longtime student of apologies in crisis management.
I have two problems with this.
First, to suggest that a company can reduce or eliminate its litigation risk by simply apologizing is a pretty bold claim to make, and rather implausible, if you ask me. If indeed this were true, wouldn’t every general counsel simply tell the CEO to apologize? That would certainly save the companies millions of dollars, and ease the strain on our courts.
I fear that people are drawing conclusions about the power (or danger) of apologies with little or no quantitative data to support those conclusions. I have been in this business for more than 20 years, and have worked with any number of companies involved in litigation, and I don’t recall an instance where a plaintiffs’ lawyer has been able to convince a judge that a letter of “apology” published in a newspaper is alone tantamount to acknowledging liability.
Nor have I seen an instance where such a communication enabled a company to prevent the filing of litigation.
The second problem I have with this assertion is the notion that a company should “assume responsibility.” If the company believes it is responsible for a problem, then it should say so. But I would never counsel a company to make such an assertion unless it was certain of its responsibility. That’s bad PR advice, and even worse legal advice.
According to Merriam-Webster, an apology is an admission of error. I have seen lots of letters from CEOs and companies where they express sympathy or regret or understand for a situation, without saying “it’s our fault.” Does that make the communication any less effective?
In many cases, the fault is not the company’s. So why SHOULD it say, “I’m sorry” if the implication is, “it was my fault”?
A colleague told me about a piece of legislation being considered in Canada, The Uniform Apology Act.
The provisions of the proposed law make the protection accorded to apologies clear by providing, first, that an apology is not an admission of legal fault or liability, express or implied; second, that an apology is not relevant in determining fault or liability; and third, that an apology is not admissible in evidence to establish liability.
That we have come to the point where we need legislation to protect a company that offers an apology is a sad statement about the condition of our society.
But as I said in my earlier posting on this topic, way too much is made of apologies. Yes – companies should communicate empathy and concern. And when a company is responsible for a problem, it should say so, and apologize if appropriate.
But a company need not fall on the sword simply because it is seen as being the right thing to do.
Companies successfully work their way out of a problem because they address the problem, and not just the perception of the problem. In other words, a business problem requires a business fix. A letter of apology or regret published in a newspaper solves nothing. And the fact that such a tactic is now seen as “required” in the PR tool kit diminishes its value even more, precisely because it is seen as required and thus not genuine.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that such communications are unnecessary. I simply believe they have very limited value, and alone they won’t lift any burden off a company in crisis.
In my view, the entire discussion of apologies is overblown. If people fixate too much with the tactic of apology (or expression of regret), then they are ignoring the far more important issue of root cause of the problem, and its solution.
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