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
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.
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Paul Oestreicher is president of Oestreicher Communications, adjunct professor at NYU, author of “Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table” and writes the blog C-O-I-N-S: Communication Opinions, Insights and New Strategies. He may be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @pauloestreicher.