Andrew Ross Sorkin’s recent column for The New York Times, “Too Many Sorry Excuses for an Apology” focused on the recent barrage of “I’m sorrys” from leaders when something went wrong or offended people. In the article, social observer Dov Seidman labeled what we’ve been seeing as “apology theater.”
“Target’s chief executive, Gregg W. Steinhafel, apologized for a security breach that affected as many as 110 million customers,” Sorkin wrote. “Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase apologized, multiple times, for his firm’s regulatory lapses. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey apologized for controversial bridge lane closings and traffic jams. The venture capitalist Tom Perkins apologized after comparing the treatment of America’s wealthiest to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. LeBron James apologized for using the word ‘retarded,’ calling it a ‘bad habit.’
“The age of the apology is clearly upon us — and it is not just about being polite,” Sorkin continued. “It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis. The art of the apology has become a carefully choreographed dance: Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are ‘taking responsibility’ and then end with, ‘I hope to put this behind me.’”
“We must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something, but rather to get into a new mode of thought and behavior. It’s a beginning, not an end,” Seidman said. “…Leaders in apology mode (should) conduct a ‘moral audit’ that includes a hard look at ‘How did I get here and how did I drift from the person I aspire to be?’”
When I talk about PR crises in class, I suggest a four-step process for dealing with the aftermath: first, acknowledge the problem and apologize; then show sincere empathy for those who were negatively affected; tell everyone how the mistake will be fixed; and finally, fix the problem. As Seidman points out, sometimes the problem is within the person who created it. Even still, there’s still no substitute for a well-articulated public apology. Your thoughts?