The 19th century fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears provides us with an important communication checklist: Is something too much, too little or just right? In our profession – especially in managing issues and crises – we attempt to match the response with the language and tone appropriate to the circumstances.
This applies to apologies, too. Does the situation deserve an apology? If so, will the apology be too weak, will it be viewed as over-apologizing, or will it be pitch-perfect and accepted as authentic?
By Paul Oestreicher
As recognition of an apology’s importance has grown, the number and demand for apologies have exploded. However, I don’t believe it’s because we’ve become a more sensitive or civil society. More and more, apologies are being used to gain leverage. Did you perceive a slight? Demand an apology. Was there a missed milestone? Demand an apology. It’s a strategy of putting your adversary on the defensive.
It’s interesting to note that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has staked a claim on the strategy of making no apologies. Indeed, in his book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,” he makes the case that apologies have no place in American policy; he believes they’re a grave weakness.
In 2009, when newly inaugurated President Obama went overseas in an attempt to repair damaged relationships, former Governor Romney went on the Today Show and said, “Of course America makes mistakes but what we have done to sacrifice in terms of blood and treasure for the freedom of other people is beyond anything any other nation has done in the history of mankind. And so that, if you will, overshadows all the mistakes and it suggests that you don’t go around the world apologizing…”
Here, I see a gaping ethical hole. Yes, you can cash-in the good deeds and goodwill you’ve banked over time to give you the benefit of the doubt in an uncertain situation. But a previous record of good does not immunize any one or any organization or any government from accepting responsibility for a serious error or worse.
Beyond the issue of too hot, too cold or just right, there’s the issue of timing. While there’s fairly broad bipartisan agreement that Romney jumped the gun when he criticized the President for what he viewed as an apology in the face of violence directed at our brave representatives serving in our embassies in Egypt and Libya, there’s an opposite problem. In the past week, there have been some stunning examples of apologies coming too late. Twenty-three years after 96 soccer fans were crushed to death in what’s been called the Hillsborough Disaster, UK Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for government efforts to blame the victims.
Even more ill timed (and ill conceived) was the apology from the German drug firm Gruenenthal, makers of thalidomide. Fifty years after the drug was pulled from the market, CEO Harald Stock said, "We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn't find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being. We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us." Thalidomide, you may recall, was a sedative given to pregnant women in the 1950s and 60s for morning sickness. Tragically, babies were born with very serious birth defects, including missing arms and legs.
The suspicion and anger caused by the half century delay was compounded by the claim that it was caused the company’s own grief – a 50 year-long post-traumatic stress that somehow erased their ability to reach out to the right people with the right words. What an absurd and insulting attempt at rationalizing an egregious decision. It’s a reminder that poorly developed and executed communications can do more harm than good.