The Business Apology: When Taking Responsibility Trumps Contrition

Have you ever made a mistake?  What do you do if you miss the mark?

Often times it is not the original transgression that causes the greatest problems, but the lack of acknowledgement on the part of the offending party that creates the most negative aftershocks in terms of creditability.

Of course this lack of acknowledgement can take many forms beyond an outright denial of wrongdoing.

One example that immediately comes to mind is the lame apology delivered by BP CEO Tony Hayward regarding the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  After saying that the company was “sorry for the massive disruption” resulting from the 2010 Gulf oil spill, he then concluded by saying “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”  At the time, the general consensus was that BP’s reputation or brand had been further and irreparably damaged by his insensitive, self-centered remark.  Talk about throwing gasoline on a fire!

The fact is that rather than focusing his contrition upon those whom the company’s actions had the most devastating impact, he made it about himself.  In essence he created what I call a yes, but apology asterisk that will forever highlight and undermine his as well as his company’s ability to make amends and rebuild their brand’s creditability.  Given how Hayward handled the crisis, it probably would have been better if he had just remained silent and fixed the problem.

In truth to be effective, apologies have to help to diffuse the situation rather than make it worse.  The only way that this can be achieved is through a sincere expression of regret combined with a clearly defined plan of action to remedy the situation.  In other words, and from a public relations standpoint, you achieve a better long term result by taking personal responsibility and being accountable early on in the process as opposed to later when it looks like it was forced or worse . . . contrived.

In my soon to be published book “The Future of You! (The Ultimate Guide for Creating Your Enduring Brand),” I make reference to how Johnson & Johnson handled the Tylenol tampering tragedy as an example of how taking responsibility trumps public displays of contrition.

Even through Johnson & Johnson was not responsible for the tampering of the product that led to the poisoning deaths of 7 people; they assumed responsibility for the public’s safety by issuing a nationwide recall of 31 million bottles of Tylenol with a retail value of over $100 million.   Rather than pointing the finger at external factors that were out of their control in an effort to protect their brand, Johnson & Johnson acknowledged the problem, dealt with it and then instituted measures to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again through the introduction of tamper-proof packaging.

Revisiting the BP situation, who by the way was at fault for what happened, imagine how the public might have responded had Hayward followed a track that was similar to that of Johnson & Johnson.  Specifically, acknowledge the problem, address it and then provide the public with a game plan as to what measures the company will take to prevent something like the Gulf oil spill from ever happening again.  The failure on Hayward’s and BP’s part to manage the situation beyond the scope of self-interest made their public apology contrived and ultimately worthless.

In the end, an apology without responsibility and resolution is an empty gesture that does more harm to a brand than remaining silent.  Or to put it another way, don’t say you’re sorry unless you plan to back it up with meaningful actions.



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About piblogger

Author and Host of the PI Window on The World Show on Blog Talk Radio.

3 responses to “The Business Apology: When Taking Responsibility Trumps Contrition”

  1. Varta S. Bruce says :

    Great article Roz on business apologies. Thank YOU!

  2. Mark Yolton (@MarkYolton) says :

    I can think of a certain disgraced bicycle racer who could learn something or two about effective apologies…

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