Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I'm sorry

I ran across a couple of stories online this week that got me thinking about apologies. Not the kind of apologies we share with one another every day, for accidentally bumping into someone or forgetting to return a call, but the kind that are called for when we’ve really messed up.

I’ve blogged before about how important it is for people/companies who’ve done wrong to come out right away and admit to their mistakes – and our old friend Tiger has been doing a fair job of driving (har, har!) that lesson home in recent weeks. But to come out and admit you’ve done something wrong isn’t always enough; especially when someone has been hurt by your mistake, you also need to apologize.

Head over to YouTube and you’ll find apologies galore: from R&B stars alleged to have abused their girlfriends, to media outlets caught misleading their audiences, to governments, trying to acknowledge and atone for the sins of their predecessors. And while we’re on the topic of big-ticket apologies (and sins), we have to mention the Catholic Church’s 1992 apology to astronomer Galileo, for having condemned him for his blasphemy that the Earth revolved around the sun; it may have been 359 years too late, but at least it finally came.

Would you hire a PR guy to defend you in court?

In his public apology for his treatment of girlfriend Rihanna, Chris Brown said he had wanted to apologize sooner, but had been advised against it by his lawyer. In the eyes of the law, an apology can been seen as an admission of guilt; and so lawyers, whose job it is to keep us out of jail, will often advise silence in the face of our own wrongdoing.

Sometimes, it's sad to say, that may be the best way to go; unless you’re willing to go to jail for your transgression, you might be better-served by remaining silent, and taking the scorn of the world (or your own audiences, at least) in exchange for your freedom.

But there are times when lawyers’ advice to remain silent can cost their client more than the settlement they’ll eventually be ordered to pay. Think of it this way: if your apology engenders customer goodwill, the business you’ll be able to continue doing after the crisis could be worth far more than a few million paid in damages and settlements. If your refusal to apologize costs you all your customers, you may save a few million in damages, but your business won't last long.

Now, that may sound cold and calculating, but the fact is that companies (especially publicly-traded ones) have to do what's best for their owners' investment. It just so happens that when it comes to apologies, oftentimes what's morally right and what's "right for the business" are one and the same.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail during its listeriosis crisis in 2008, Maple Leaf Foods’ CEO Michael McCain said “Going through the crisis there are two advisors I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers, and the second are the accountants.” McCain, as PR and business opinion leaders have attested ever since, handled his company’s response to the crisis almost flawlessly; the approach was anchored by a timely, public, multi-media apology.

As a result of its quick, sincere and customer-focused response (involving far more than the apology, it must be said), Maple Leaf's customer confidence ratings rebounded quickly – a fact which I'm sure relieved its lawyers and accountants.

People can forgive imperfection. They’re less able to forgive arrogance.

If you have anyone in your life who refuses to apologize, even when they clearly know they’re in the wrong, you know it’s infuriating. And it’s no different in a relationship between a client and a business than between two people. If you do something wrong, you need to acknowledge that it was wrong, and apologize for having hurt whomever you hurt. It might’nt fix the problem, but it can help.

There’s a great example of exactly this on Steve Farnsworth’s Digital Marketing Mercenary blog this week: “ The Anatomy of a Social Media Nightmare Averted – Case Study.” It’s a great read, and shows exactly how an apology can get you back on the road to a healthy relationship.

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