Why - and how - should you apologize when you believe you've done
nothing wrong? The Bush Administration was forced to walk that tightrope
with the 'spy plane' incident, and the outcome offers some lessons for
corporations and other organizations who feel they've been falsely
accused of wrongdoing.
Personal experience teaches each of us that saying 'I'm sorry' can help
defuse an argument. But for companies involved in high-stakes conflicts,
this common-sense approach may be overtaken by indignation, litigation
concerns, and the conflicting demands of key audiences. A company's
employees, for example, may be angry because they believe the
organization has nothing to apologize for, just as polls showed a
majority of Americans wanted President Bush to stand firm.
Often, these barriers can be broken by redefining the concept of apology
in terms that are most meaningful to the people we need to reach. There
are indeed cultural differences in the way people perceive apologies -
not only among nations, but among ethnic groups and even between men and
Linguist and researcher Deborah Tannen has observed that women generally
apologize more than men do. Women seem more willing to 'lose the
argument' by apologizing, perhaps as a trade-off for achieving a larger
goal. The same USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll that showed an overall majority
opposing an apology by President Bush nonetheless showed a majority of
women supporting it to ensure the crew members' safe return. The
pollster said, 'Women are asking, 'Where's the compassion?''
Tannen also notes that women don't necessarily equate 'I'm sorry' with
'I'm guilty.' They will apologize as a way to express sadness or
empathy, as in 'I'm sorry you didn't get the job.' Indeed, for many
corporations accused of causing harm, opinion research has shown that
messages of regret, concern and empathy will address the public's need
for apology without acknowledging legal liability. (Of course, it is
critical that PR executives and attorneys work together on such issues.
Some states have even changed their laws to specify that an apology
can't be used against a company in a civil case, but the laws and
Apologies are not a panacea, whether in personal or corporate life.
Typically, they must be followed with action that demonstrates the
gesture was sincere.
But when an apology is the bottom-line need of an important audience, it
can help pave the way to assuaging critics without jeopardizing the
support of allies.