What's the point of a public apology?

There has been a spate of public apologies recently, from Apple to Alan Jones, and while companies shouldn't always say sorry, it should be sincere if they're going to.

T’is the season for apologies. The latest spate of them shows that the case for public apology from a manager or business is usually not that well thought through or well delivered. We are now in the era of the non-apology apology, what New York Times writer William Schneider called the "past exonerative” where people seem to apologise without taking responsibility (as in "I’m sorry if what I said offended you”).

But the social media response to Alan Jones tells us the corporate mea culpa will be a growth sector in the business world. As psychiatrist Aaron Lazare says in his book On Apology, public apologies are demanded more now because the global village has more connections and layers. Social media campaigns around Alan Jones’ overly qualified apology and Apple’s "Mapplegate” debacle this month show that it is now even more crucial an issue for managers.

In recent weeks, we have seen two cases of public apology that went wrong. The first was Apple chief executive Tim Cook apologising for the badly conceived Apple Maps, publishing an open letter conceding the new app fell short of the company’s standards and also, remarkably suggesting third party alternative apps, like Bing, Mapquest, Waze as well as apps from competitors Nokia and Google. Cook’s apology didn’t get to the nub of the issue. Apple had ditched Google Maps in the wake of ongoing friction with Google which has been moving into Apple’s territory with Android. The Apple Maps app was released before it was ready. While it still seems to work okay, it was not as good as the solid Google maps app.

The problem for Apple is that high-quality maps are critical for modern smartphones. Apple's decision to replace Google Maps was an example of the company putting its own interests above those of its customers which was really what people were upset about. Cook’s apology didn’t cover that. If he was really sorry, he would have got Apple to restore Google Maps. His apology, in other words, was more about protecting Apple from a PR debacle. Nor did he explain how Apple was going to fix the problem.

But then, so what? In its first weekend, Apple sold five million units, a 20 per cent increase over the number of iPhone 4S devices sold during a similar stretch in 2011. Analysts don’t expect the map issue will hurt sales. In any case, most iPhone5 users are tech savvy enough to find other mapping apps, it’s not that hard.

The Alan Jones apology was a tawdry exonerative. While he’s been condemned by business, politicians and the media, the campaign launched against him on social media has been the most significant development. A Facebook blitz on sponsors has attracted more than 11,000 "likes". Users have bombarded advertisers with emails and many have buckled under pressure. Macquarie Radio network chairman Russell Tate said one client had received 6000 emails in a day.

The reality is, however, that Jones won’t be sacked. Station management has stood by the man who has equity in Macquarie, which is 70 per cent owned by John Singleton. Given the size of his audience which is rusted on to his value set, Jones isn’t going anywhere.

That is why his so-called apology was so heavily qualified. Jones would see no business case for it. He believes advertisers will come back because they know his western Sydney audience buys their products. After all, they had stood by him when he called Sydney’s Lebanese Muslims "vermin" who "infest our shores" and "rape" and "pillage" Australia. So unless the campaigners keep the pressure on advertisers for the next 12 months or set up a Jones-watch – which is highly unlikely – this too will pass. In any case, one suspects Jones enjoys all this attention. It only encourages him. Jones always leads with his face.

What’s interesting here is that the story showed how social media has now overtaken talkback radio. And that means one thing: every time a company stuffs up and it goes on social media, we can expect more public pressure for corporate apologies.

Still, saying you’re sorry can mend a reputation, create a committed workforce and potentially open new markets. One example of an effective apology came from Toyota president Akio Toyoda in 2009 when there was a series of recalls of some eight million cars for brake defects. A total of 37 deaths were suspected of being caused by these problems. Appearing before the US Congress, a shame-faced Toyoda said "I extend my sincerest condolences… from the bottom of my heart. I'm deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced."

True, the apology was not perfect. While expressing regret, Toyoda did not accept responsibility for prioritising profit maximisation over public safety. The apology nonetheless was part of a broader crisis management response that commentators cite as a crisis management case study. It was better than nothing.

So when is it appropriate? Managers should note there is a methodology to it.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Barbara Kellerman, from Harvard University's Kennedy school of government offers a somewhat says apologies should only be extended when they serve an important purpose, when the offence is serious, when the leader should assume responsibility, when no one else can do it and when the cost of saying something is likely to be lower than the cost of saying nothing.

"Unless one or more of these conditions pertain, there is no good reason for leaders to apologise," she says.

"An apology that is misguided or ill-conceived can actually do more harm than good. Similarly, when an apology is called for but none is given, anger and hurt can fester and difficulties may escalate."

She says leaders can accept responsibility and express regret.

Kellerman presents a list of questions for managers to consider: what function would the apology serve, who benefits, why would an apology matter (for strategic reasons? moral reasons?), what happens when the apology is made, would it placate the injured parties and hasten resolution, will an apology create legal problems, what happens if you don't apologise, will the problem fade, and will a refusal to apologise make it worse? The bottom line: will it affect the business or not?

It’s a somewhat amoral position but some managers may wish to adopt it when doing a cost-benefit analysis of whether to apologise or not.

Public apologies, unlike private apologies, are targeted at a larger audience with various agendas so if a company decides, as Toyota did, that the business needs to do it, the mea culpa has to be well thought through.

But if the Jones and Apple cases are any guide, we’re going to see more non-apology apologies which might save face but won’t fix the problem. Here’s a tip for managers: at the risk of sounding like your mother, say it like you mean it.

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