Apologies as strategy–why they work and why they may be losing power

This is a very insightful article by Christopher Lehane, a former lawyer and Clinton White House spokesperson, now crisis consultant. His statement about the role of credibility is one of the simplest and most powerful expressions of the critical element of crisis communication today:

It hasn’t always been this way. Embarrassing stories would wither away between evening news broadcasts, and complaints would often cease to become news. But in today’s incessant media environment, there is only one thing that can help to preserve a politician’s image, a celebrity’s reputation or a company’s brand: Credibility. As a result, the apology, which is a way to claim one’s credibility when facing a modern-day media storm, is increasingly becoming a critical tool for surviving a crisis.

This raises the question, however: Have apologies lost their impact? I commented on this blog and on Ragan’s newsletter about Reed Hasting’s apology which I defended as effective. The judgment of the media, investors and social media conversants seems to be that it wasn’t. I agree it failed in one critical aspect–it was far too late. But to call it insincere as so many have, strikes me as strange. Read it for yourself and decide. How does one determine from a message like this whether one is sincere or not? I suspect it has much more to do with the predilection of the reader than the words themselves.

This quick judgment of insincerity toward Reed Hasting’s apology suggests something else–that the apology may be losing its effectiveness. Lehane does a great job of identifying three reasons why apologies are effective: 1) it draws a line of separation from the past (that was then, this is now) 2) It openly admits need for change 3) it seeks to create an opportunity from the error or problem, thereby becoming better.

I think there is another element which is our inherent or culturally-oriented way of dealing with transgressions. Forgiveness comes easily when a transgression (yes, I’m using the old terms on purpose) is recognized and the transgressor is sincerely repentant. This basic idea is foundational to the Christian faith and since we are all heirs of a Christian cultural tradition, it can be seen as deeply rooted in who we are as people. But, because of the sense of obligation to forgive the transgressor when the repentance is sincere, we tend to be very suspicious of the sincerity. I think in the Hasting’s case, that is what is going on here. We are not really rejecting the inclination to forgive true repentance, we just want to make darn sure they are really, really sorry.

If apologies are losing their force, then the old axiom of actions speak louder than words becomes even more important. Actions matter. If Reed Hasting’s apology had been made along with the statement “we screwed up, we should not have split our business, we are going back to the old way of doing things and want to forget the whole idea of a price increase for mixed DVD and streaming services. Sorry about that.” That would be different. The problem they faced was that they made a business decision that felt was best for their future, completely botched the announcement and then tried to recover lost clients and trust. I think the apology was sincere, but it was not effective because it was not accompanied by the actions those who care about this really wanted.

Lesson? If you are going to apologize when you or your organization screws up, think about what actions you are going to take to make things better. Then act on them. And, if you are going to take corrective action and apologize, do it sooner than later. One thing I am going to do in response to this emerging issue of the loss of power of apology is to think through potential actions in evaluating worst-case scenarios. Restorative actions can and now I think should be part of crisis response planning. For the simple reason that, as someone said, now is too late.




2 thoughts on “Apologies as strategy–why they work and why they may be losing power”

  1. The judicial process gains from the announcement not just of a result but of the rationale for that result. See JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG probably the outstanding movie depicting crisis management and communications. Why so? Because those being tried the NAZI judges are made to understand why they are being prosecuted not just that they lost! And the judges rationales for their actions are revealed as being largely self serving, not true apologies at all.
    When mistakes are made in general those receiving the apology want some recognition that a mistake was made and why the person issuing the apology believes it necessary. In the NETFLIX case the decision was announce out of the blue and with no explanation even as to business necessity. I like the post but I would argue that even now NETFLIX has a crisis in large part because it yet has yeilded up any rationale or reason for the business decision. And some who subscribe are now believers that unilateral actions impacting them will still be taken in the future. Perhaps out of my ignorance I believe NETFLIX has done some permanent long range harm in those that trusted them to try and provide customer service and the ultimate repudiation of customer service is when the customer is informed but not consulted or even given advance notice of decisions impacting them. In emergency situations then it becomes problematic when in fact time is not unlimited and constraints on issuance of PARs [protective action recommendations] may not be effective if longer time frames elapse and consultation not possible. Still a great post.

  2. Good discussion here. In keeping with the Biblical analogy, I think forgiveness comes easier when the incident doesn’t involve one of the self indulgent “7 deadly sins,” (such as Weiner’s indiscretion or Netflix empty apology). We don’t seem to be very tolerant of “I messed up” (but you’re stuck with it, so live with it). Hastings might have won back some loyals if Netflix made an attempt to make amends, not just express sorrow. I do give him points, though, for writing the apology. But sincerity has accompanying actions. An explanation of “why we did it” is not an apology, it’s an explanation. Just my two-cents.

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