“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”
― John Wayne says what many CEOs seem to think

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Issue 31   September, 2015

DFreelance writer Sue Hornerear Sue,
At one time, it seemed big business meant never having to say you’re sorry, to paraphrase a famous movie line. Increasingly, CEOs are finding that’s not the case. This issue of Wordnerdery shares how to make effective corporate apologies.
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As Elton John sang, 'sorry' seems to be the hardest word

How CEOs can say sorryEmployees, customers and others who have been wronged by corporate action/inaction want and deserve an apology. Yet lawyers and executives are wary of what could be seen as “admitting fault.” 

“Sorry” does indeed seem to be the hardest word. But apologies done right make for good relations, and good business. Here are some tips for an effective corporate apology:

1.  Be sincere. “Senior leaders must immediately express candor, remorse, and a commitment to change in a high-profile setting—and make it sincere,” says the Harvard Business Review.

A senior executive for Mitsubishi Materials Corp. said in July through a translator that the company offered a “most remorseful apology” for using prisoners of war for forced labour during World War II.

2.  Be prompt. A prompt apology sounds more sincere. In 2014, nearly a week went by before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offered a half-hearted apology for "poorly communicating” about a troublesome research study. Three months later, the chief technology officer made the problem worse with  “an awkward, three-step, not-very-contrite apology.”

3. Be personal. Lose the formal, jargony language and speak from the heart. In a 2006 apology, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg used words like “bad job,” “we missed this point” and “I’m sorry.”

4.  Take responsibility. Don’t blame outside factors. Admit your mistake. Make it clear you recognize the harm and explain what’s being done to fix the situation. Forbes says, “Real apologies are straightforward and take full responsibility. They sound like this: We made a mistake; we’re sorry; here’s what we’re doing to fix the problem.”

Contrast this with Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, who blamed its recalled see-through yoga pants on the women who wore them.

5.  Keep it short. “The longer to try to explain yourself, the worse you make it and the more open you leave yourself for having to clarify your apology,” says Forbes.
Remember the famous “apology” by Tony Hayward, then CEO of BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Adding “I’d like my life back” after his apology took away any goodwill he might have earned.

The bottom line is that apologies are a good thing – and not just for good employee and customer relations. A study cited by CyberAlert found that “A good apology can build investor confidence,” helping stabilize or even increase stock prices hurt by corporate action or inaction.
Have you heard a memorable apology, either good or bad? Hit “reply” and tell me about it.  And let me know if you need help crafting your own apologetic messages.

Images: "Sorry" by Stuart Miles and Sue by Rob Jeanveau of IABC/Golden Horseshoe.


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