Knowing how and when to apologize can be critical in managing a potentially damaging public issue.
So it was revealing when energy giant AGL was fined $1.5 million for misleading customers and still couldn’t find a way to say sorry.
After being heavily fined for breaking the law, AGL seemed unable or unwilling to express a sincere apology to the people who had been affected by what The Age branded “door-knocking lies.”
In the company’s official statement, Group GM Retail Energy Stephen Mikkelson “expressed his regret that the breach had occurred.” Then he launched into two classic justification strategies. First he tried to push blame down the chain. “The case demonstrates how difficult it is to control what salespeople do when they are at people’s premises.”
Then he tried to spread the guilt, calling on the whole industry to follow AGL’s example and withdraw from unsolicited door-knocking to protect consumers and improve the reputation of the industry. “Those companies still undertaking the practice” he opined, “are doing harm to the energy sector’s reputation.”
The company had already begun distributing “Do Not Knock” stickers with its bills, though Sarah Wilson of the Consumer Law Centre believes the sticker campaign was clearly about AGL trying to stop rival companies from getting to speak to its customers.
But of course AGL wasn’t fined for door-knocking. It was fined because its representatives were caught out lying to customers, and that requires more than just diversionary tactics and an expression of regret. If AGL was genuinely concerned about the reputation of the industry, a heartfelt apology might have done a lot more good.
In a perceptive analysis of “sorry” versus “it’s regrettable,” Canadian crisis consultant Melisssa Agnes says a real apology shows you’re sincerely sorry for the mistake made and that you’ve learned from it, while “it’s regrettable” puts your lawyers at ease knowing that you aren’t directly admitting guilt.
“Saying the situation is regrettable is in no way apologizing for whatever circumstances launched your brand into the crisis in the first place,” she says. “Your customers want to feel that you sincerely care, and hear you acknowledge what they’ve endured. Replacing “I’m sorry” with “it’s regrettable” won’t give them that reassurance.”
We’ll never know what discussion took place inside AGL’s executive suite. But legal risk could hardly have been a major factor as the company had already admitted the wrong-doing in court and copped a massive fine. It may have been pride. It may have been obstinacy. Or it may have just been misguided strategy. But it certainly wasn’t effective issue management.