Bad apologies damage issues and damage reputations

2012 was a bumper year for apologies – but many were insincere or ill-conceived or came only after legal threats.

Too often, apologies which are simply efforts at self-justification or blaming the victim, create further damage to reputations of organizations, brands or individuals.

As the Christian Science Monitor observed in 2012: “The number of reported public apologies has skyrocketed recently, yet the quality of those apologies is plummeting.”

Australian Champion of the reluctant apology must be talk radio host Alan Jones who made highly offensive remarks about Prime Minister Julia Gillard at a political dinner.  After a rambling “non-apology” in September – which Jones used mainly to defend himself and blame others – advertisers and sponsors began to withdraw.  And when a social media campaign began to pressure other advertisers, Jones tried to portray himself as a victim of cyber-bullying.

Jones was in the headlines again last month when he was finally forced to apologise for on-air comments in April 2005, when he described Lebanese men as “vermin” and “mongrels” who “simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that’s taken them in.” It has been claimed his comments contributed to a vicious anti-Moslem riot at Sydney’s Cronulla Beach later that year.  Yet it was only after a prolonged legal battle to avoid apologizing for racial vilification that the radio station broadcast a pre-recorded message – albeit it nearly eight years late.  Jones said: “I apologise for making those comments and I recognise they were unlawful and I apologize on behalf of Radio 2GB.”

Readers can make up their own minds about whether that sounds sorry or whether it was a formalized piece agreed by lawyers. In fact, Canadian social media crisis blogger Melissa Agnes wrote recently about balancing a genuine apology with the legal perspective. The bottom line is that a bad, lawyered apology can create even more risk.

In August the CEO of Australia’s largest transport company had to apologise after senior executives at a team-building meeting simulated sex with a donkey while wearing aprons depicting male parts. Toll CEO Brian Kruger wrote to employees expressing disappointment, and saying the event “marred the reputation of our culture and the strong values we hold.”  But, according to news reports, no mention of the word sorry.

Even “sorry” is not enough if it is qualified and grudging.  The 2012 prize for most qualified apology goes to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott after linking the Prime Minister not having children to the Government cut in the baby bonus.  He told radio: “If she wants to take offense, then of course I am sorry about that. And if she would like me to say I am sorry, I’m sorry.” Not very impressive.

Earlier in the year, Forbes Magazine offered some admirable advice: “Next time you’re clearly in the wrong, take a deep breath, put aside your self-justification, your excuses, your blame, your defensiveness, and simply apologize.”  As I wrote in a recent edition of Managing Outcomes, why do some people and some companies find that so hard?


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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