“[Marion Jones] did everything right today. She was contrite, she was humble, she was sincere. You could feel her pain. She admitted to making mistakes and her pain is obvious.”
– Dick Patrick, USA Today
The above quote concerns the October 5 public apology made by Marion Jones, the prodigiously talented sprinter and Olympic medalist. It is the most recent example of well-known people who have found themselves in the position of being called to publicly account for their mistakes.
Indeed, as business traditionally heats up as the fall weather cools down (or maybe not!), the business of apology seems to be experiencing a growth spurt of its own. Even so, I’m sorry to say (no pun intended), apology has fallen on hard times.
This is a shame because apology is one of the most powerful communication tools that we have in our arsenal.
I’m not the only one thinking about this. As a blogger for fastcompany.com, I had written a couple of posts on the subject and received an unprecedented number of responses. My posts discussed two people recently in the news: Michael Vick and Steve Jobs. Different men, different mistakes and different approaches to making amends.
Apology is a leadership skill.
Apology On the Decline
As a public communications consultant and an observer of and commentator on the public statements of business leaders, celebrities, and politicians for almost two decades, I have noticed a precipitous decline in public apologies. It is an omission that has left an empty place in the soul of American business and politics.
Apology has gone out of fashion; it seems that guilt and shame have been banished from our repertoire of feelings. Perhaps due to our business culture of “success at any cost,” owning up to such feelings is no longer “in.” Even the less emotionally laden “regret” has seen better days.
It certainly is not that people are making fewer mistakes.
When an apology does make the news, therefore, I take notice.
Apology Case Study #1: Michael Vick
A recent apology was delivered by Michael Vick, the talented Atlanta Falcons quarterback, who recently pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy related to running an illegal dogfighting operation (click here to view the video). Vick’s apology was effective for a number of reasons:
1. He accepted total responsibility. “I take full responsibility for my actions.” Vick did not blame anyone and did not seem angry with the people who blamed him. He also said he’d made bad decisions and had had bad judgment.
2. He spoke of his shame and guilt. “I was ashamed and totally disappointed in myself, to say the least.” His use of such language was breathtaking in its honesty, simplicity, directness and rarity.
3. He apologized. “I want to apologize for all the things that I’ve done and that I’ve allowed to happen” and “I offer my deepest apologies.” Note that he uses the word “apology,” not the weaker, more weasel-y “regret.” He went on to apologize personally to the coach, team owner and his teammates, owning up to the fact that he had not been forthright. He also directed his apology to fans, especially young fans, saying he had done something immature and needed to grow up. “I hope every young kid who’s been following this case will use me as an example for using better judgment and making better decisions.” This was especially striking. He asked for forgiveness.
4. He accepted his fate. “And now I have to pay the consequences…I’ve got a lot to think about. I’ve got a lot of down time, a lot of time to think about my actions and how to make Michael Vick a better person.” Vick will be going to jail. That is a big comedown from the heights he is accustomed to.
5. His delivery was believable. “For most of my life, I’ve been a football player, not a public speaker…I’m gonna take this opportunity to speak from the heart.” Vick did not seem rehearsed or programmed. His eyes were downcast, his voice quiet. His body language was closed, hands down, shoulders rounded. He looked uncomfortable, repeatedly shifting his weight. He seemed genuinely humbled and shaken by what had transpired. His tone was accepting, but did not sound resigned or defeated. There was not a shred of defensiveness in his delivery.
While no one knows if Vick was sincere, he looked and sounded sincere. With this apology, he has paved his road to redemption by giving fans, supporters and even owners of other teams their first opportunity to give him the forgiveness that he seeks and will need in coming months and years.
Apology Case Study #2: Steve Jobs
As most readers know by now, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer recently reduced the price of the iPhone by a third. He did this a little over two months after the phone first came to market. This is the phone Apple spent a year building excitement for so when it went on sale in June, people clamored for one.
Long time Apple customers are accustomed to the company’s practice maintaining new product price points for significant periods of time, usually at least a year. So those who had purchased the iPhone for a hefty $599 felt a sense of shock and betrayal when Apple unexpectedly announced in early September that, effective immediately, the same phone would cost $399.
In the ensuring uproar, Steve Jobs and his team sprang into action and posted a letter to the Apple website apologizing and offering a rebate to the early iPhone buyers. Steve Jobs’s apology was ineffective:
1. He did not accept total responsibility. “This is life in the technology lane.” With those 7 words, Jobs dashed any hope that an iPhone customer might have had that he felt their pain. He might as easily have climbed to the highest rooftop and yelled, “Suckers!” Jobs showed a complete lack of empathy, a job requirement when it comes to apology.
2. He did not speak of shame and guilt. “We need to do a better job taking care of our early iPhone customers as we aggressively go after new ones with a lower price.” This is the closest Jobs came to any admission that customers mean anything to him and to Apple. The rest of the letter contained several paragraphs that make the business case for the price cut.
3. He did not (really) apologize. “We apologize for disappointing some of you.” The words “some of” demolishes this statement by implying there were many more others who were not upset and who, in Jobs’s view, got it right. Jobs does use the words “We apologize.” In this context, however, they are empty.
4. He did not accept his/Apple’s fate. “We have decided to offer every iPhone customer who purchased an iPhone from either Apple or AT&T, and who is not receiving a rebate or any other consideration, a $100 store credit towards the purchase of any product at an Apple Retail Store or the Apple Online Store.” Could this statement contain any more caveats and exceptions? This offer has the look and feel of a smoke screen, designed to do just enough so Apple and Jobs can say they made an effort to make customers whole, but not enough to cause much pain. More meaningful would have been a rebate check for $100 that could be spent anywhere, not only at Apple.
5. His delivery was not believable. That this apology was put in the form of a letter decreases its impact and believability considerably. In addition, it is completely buried in the Apple website. I found it more easily by doing a Google search. It should have been available on Apple’s home page. Jobs should have recorded a video apology. These missteps lend support to the idea that although Apple and Jobs called it an apology, they didn’t mean it.
The only missing principle – a critical one – is speed. Too many times, and these cases are no exception, people take too long to apologize, which only exacerbates the situation. Still, these two examples teach us much about what it takes to deliver a sincere apology.
Why Apologies Matter
A solid, from-the-heart apology is not easy to do. That’s part of what makes one such a powerful and effective tool. It takes courage, evident in Vick’s apology and not in Jobs’s, which seems cowardly.
Apology is an unparalleled defuser of conflicts. In an instant it can persuade the most stubborn or entrenched to back off and take another look. It immediately identifies the apologizer as taking control, responsibility and ownership. It is transcendent. I wish that people in business and politics would do it (and mean it) more often. Personally, I crave it. And from what I’ve recently discovered from the response to my fastcompany.com blog, and from audiences who attend my speeches and presentations, others do, too.
To business executives and politicians facing a crisis or who make a mistake – and we all do – I say don’t miss a beat. Make an immediate public apology. Have some ideas ready to solve the problem. Then watch as body language relaxes, voices become calmer, attitudes become less strident, tension is released, customers remain customers and the press moves on to another story.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.