Are Corporate Apologies Still Meaningful?

CEO, apology, corporate apologiesIt could be a failure with customer service, an industrial accident or a product failure. Potentially, the worst problem for an organization is when its leaders get embroiled in a scandal. It is typically up to the CEO to get out there and offer a mea culpa.

Aren’t apologies a good thing?

We are taught to apologize when we are children. You grabbed someone’s toy or you hit someone. These aren’t uncommon incidents for toddlers and very young children. After all, these are important life lessons about respecting other people and self-control.

When they are meant sincerely, they can be a great conduit for reconnection and reparation and a sign of integrity and ethics. People are more likely to acknowledge that people make mistakes when genuine remorse is expressed.

Corporate apologies are a somewhat different animal altogether

As was described in a Price Waterhouse Cooper – The  Resiliency Blog post, there are two basic apologies.

  • The CEO apologizes for something he/she has done
  • The (sometimes replacement or interim) CEO apologizes for something the company has done

Certainly the expectation from outside the company is that the apology is not a public relations stunt and will lead to some kind of change or reparation. However, as the PwC post noted, an apology is often issued to rebuild stakeholder trust. Essentially, stakeholders want a reason to believe the CEO and/or the organization could be redeemed. Without that reason, it is much more difficult for the company to recover.

And it gets more interesting at this point

The format a company chooses largely depends on culture, both of the individual organization and the country it operates in. In some places, a press conference is the natural place for a public verbal apology. However, a number of organizations are turning to YouTube as a means of communicating with stakeholders and the general public. Since people have access to social media all over the world, this is a useful tool to get the message out. In these videos, you see whether the CEO is carefully scripted and how the setting is staged. For example, you can hear the sound of seagulls in the background of this BP apology.

However, the most interesting part of either watching a press conference or YouTube video are the microexpressions the CEO makes while speaking. Microexpressions are very quick facial expressions that often last a second and can reveal masked emotions. Sometimes we’re aware that we’ve noticed these fleeting demonstrations but other times, we are left with the feeling that there is a discrepancy in the person’s message. When a CEO apologizes, it isn’t just that the message is sent out publicly and the company can move to the next step. For publicly traded companies, press conferences and YouTube videos have real effects on the price of stock. According to research by Leanne ten Brinke,  a company’s stock can fall dramatically if the CEO does not show consistency between his/her words and non-verbal behavior.

PR move or genuine connection with customers and stake holders

There is currently a trend that all businesses must connect more authentically with their customer base. Mistakes and scandals are seen through this lens and, consequently, organizations feel more urgency to get out in front of the public response. However, there is also the added challenge of how local cultures interpret the message. In the US, there is a cultural tendency to forgive and move on. In other countries, an apology might not even be required because the offense is not considered a major event. The executive team and the public relations staff may see the situation and tell the CEO what to say and how to minimize the degree of damage to the company. Given all of this an apology could be anything from a public relations move to a combination of damage-control and an attempt to reconnect with customers, stakeholders and the public.

What do you think? Join us on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz this Friday, September 6th at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT to discuss if corporate apologies are still meaningful.

What recent corporate apologies caught your attention?

What purpose does an apology serve for an organization under fire?

How has social media affected the delivery of apologies?

How are corporate apologies interpreted around the world?

How does an organization balance between a genuine apology and the threat of being held responsible for damages/harm?

What happens when circumstances are so large-scale that the apology seems inadequate?

 About the author:  Elli St.George Godfrey, founder of Ability Success Growth, small business coach and executive coach, is the host of KaizenBiz. I’m passionate about business becoming a more human-centered place so I host this chat to connect business ideas and develop people.This passion shows up in my work with my clients. Whether you are expanding locally or internationally, Ability Success Growth guides established small business owners and executives to unlock the CEO within during times of transition and growth.