THINKPIECE: To keep the peace and satisfy all, smart PR issometimes having to say you're sorry

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

women.



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

interpretations vary.)



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.



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