How to Apologize: Tips for Companies

  • John Hellerman
  • July 17, 2014
  • blog

David Greenberg, Executive Vice President at LRN (a corporate culture advisory business), wrote a recent Dealbook column about corporate apologies, and how far they’ve strayed from the actual act of apologizing. Instead of genuine communications attempting to accomplish the “acknowledgment and redress of a wrong,” Greenberg alleges they are more frequently used as tools by both the giver and the recipient to further self-serving agendas.

He writes:

The reason that so many apologies seem unsatisfying is that neither side really wants the apology. Instead, they are both seeking to use the underlying situation to their advantage. The apology is not judged on its own merits — Is it genuine? Does it redress the wrong? Will it be the source of learning? Is there closure? — but rather whether it advances a different agenda — Does it avoid or promote liability? Does it minimize or maximize reputational harm? Does it advance or detract from a policy agenda?

The recipients of corporate apologies, Greenberg writes, are less concerned with actually processing (and perhaps accepting) an apology on its own terms than with selfish considerations like: “Is there a potential lawsuit, book deal or policy advantage in prolonging the controversy, media attention and discussion of larger implications and fixes?” It’s enough to make you wonder if corporate apologies should be retired altogether, and the CEO of LRN, Dov Seidman, has done just that.

Greenberg doesn’t go that far. Instead, he offers the following tips to improve the all-too-common, agenda-ridden corporate apology:

  1. True Engagement: There needs to be direct communication between the two parties (as opposed to only speaking through the press and social media).
  2. True Analysis: Industry observers and reporters should comment honestly on the real agendas at play.
  3. True Humility: Both parties should acknowledge and reveal the human struggle involved in the apology.
  4. True Confession: All should constructively reflect on past apologies and take ownership of mistakes.

These four tips represent an ideal to which all companies should strive in giving or receiving an apology. After all, companies are comprised of humans, and they need to show human compassion in all of their work. Apologizing in that human way can be humbling in the moment, but in the long run such authentic communication tends to be good for business as well.

Apologies have been something of a preoccupation here on the Sound Bites blog (in part because, as Greenberg notes, they are often executed poorly), so we appreciate Greenberg’s #2 and hope that he and others have enjoyed reading our “Grading the Statement” posts in which we dissect corporate apologies. And of course, if you’re dealing with a sticky situation that might require an apology—perhaps struggling with the right words, or wondering how to appropriately display compassion—HBC’s crisis communications practice is always available to help.