Mastering the art of the public apology

Deflecting blame doesn’t cut it. Neither does, ‘I’m sorry if you anyone was offended.’ And words mean little without restorative actions. Give your mea culpa real meaning.

In 1976, Elton John sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

Today it’s hard to turn on your computer, TV, or radio or pick up a newspaper without seeing a politician, a movie star, a corporate CEO, or a PR executive saying they’re sorry for something that went wrong or something they said.

Some come across as sincere, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s apology for his staff’s role in reducing local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, resulting in traffic jams in Fort Lee for several days. Of course, investigators will determine whether he spoke the truth or not about prior knowledge, but the apology seemed earnest.

During his now famous news conference, which would run more than 90 minutes, his first paragraph contained the word “apologize” three times.

“I come out here to this office where I’ve been many times before to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee, and I apologize to the members of the state legislature,” Christie said.

He would use the word “apologize” 29 times and added the word “sorry” three other times.

A change in policy

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina issued an effective mea culpa over the company’s cancellation of family insurance it had sold to 20 gay and lesbian couples.

“We should have more thoughtfully considered this decision, with full appreciation of the impact it would have on same-sex married couples and domestic partners. We’re sorry we failed to do so,” the company said.

Most people will hear that and appreciate that the company recognized it made a mistake and even explained how it happened (not enough thoughtful consideration).

The non-apology

Then there is what may be the most common type of apology—one that doesn’t really apologize for the incident, just the effect of the incident. In other words, the person or organization making the apology does not take blame for what happened.

After a problem at Los Angeles International Airport in which New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith was asked to get off a Virgin America plane (the reason is in dispute), the airline issued an apology, sort of:

“After a full review of the incident, we believe it was the result of a misunderstanding that regrettably escalated unnecessarily. We’ve apologized to Mr. Smith for his experience, which could have been better—and we’d welcome him back onboard any time. As an airline that prides itself on our guest service, we take incidents such as this one very seriously.”

So, the airline apologized for the experience but did not take responsibility for what happened.

This kind of apology can be frustrating. On a personal level, I was recently at a hotel and my room service order was completely botched. The apology was, “We’re sorry you were upset.” No, you should be sorry you messed up my order.

On the books

In the medical community in Pennsylvania, this type of apology is now law. In the Western Pennsylvania Healthcare news, attorney Sarah Carlins writes:

The Benevolent Gesture Medical Professional Liability Act signed into law on October 25, 2013, makes apologies by physicians to patients and their families inadmissible in medical malpractice cases. However, the Act excepts from its protection admissions of wrongdoing. Specifically, the Act makes any benevolent gesture by a health care provider, made prior to the commencement of a medical professional liability action, inadmissible as evidence of liability, so long as such gesture does not include an admission of negligence or fault.

So, the physician can apologize, as long as that apology doesn’t contain an acknowledgement of responsibility.

A frosty defense

Sometimes, people forget they should apologize. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed accepted some of the blame (though he was quick to dish it out, too) for the way his city responded to the recent winter storm.

In many interviews, some of which were live, he failed to apologize to the people of Atlanta for the mistakes that were made. Instead, he displayed a nearly defiant air. His failure to apologize could well affect how people feel about their mayor when the next election is held.

At first, the governor of Georgia was defiant, blaming the weather service for not properly predicting the winter storm for Atlanta. But after it was clear that the weather forecasters had been correct, the governor began to apologize for messing up preparations for the storm.

Why are apologies important? An article in Psychology Today on “The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology” notes:

Although it might seem intimidating to ‘own up’ to bad behavior so completely, doing so will not only help mend important relationships and ease feelings guilt(sic), but taking responsibility and doing the right thing can feel extremely empowering.

Many people will say that when they feel they have been wronged in some way, all they want is an apology, as in my hotel example. All the room service people had to do was apologize in the right way. But they didn’t, so I took the next step of asking for a refund for the meal.

Had they simply said, “We are sorry we messed it up. Let us send up a new meal right away, along with a dessert with our compliments,” I would be singing their praises now instead of criticizing them.

Action speak louder

The right kind of apology can go a long way.

Finally, when apologizing, words and deeds must match. If part of an apology promises to fix something or makes something better, then the person (or organization) delivering the apology must also deliver on its promise. reported on Jan. 29, 2014:

The dean of the Harvard Business School made an extraordinary public apology on Monday in San Francisco for his school’s past behavior toward women. At a ballroom in the Ritz Carlton Hotel before 600 alumni and guests, Dean Nitin Nohria acknowledged that HBS had sometimes treated its female students and professors offensively.

Nohria conceded there were times when women at Harvard felt “disrespected, left out, and unloved by the school. I’m sorry on behalf of the business school,” he told a hushed room. “The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.”

Among other things, Nohria pledged to more than double the percentage of women who are protagonists in Harvard case studies over the next five years, to 20%. Currently, about 9% of Harvard case studies – which account for 80% of the cases studied at business schools around the world – have women as protagonists. He said he would meet with HBS faculty on Wednesday to discuss the objective.

So, he has apologized and focused on fixing the problem. If he follows through, people will look back on his apology as sincere and appreciate his effort to fix the problem. If not, his remarks are available for all to see and to remind him.

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