Tough guys should never say sorry

When Paris Hilton - no relation - followed her release from jail with a pledge that she would be better behaved in future, it backfired because that was not what she did.

The point of Miss Hilton is that she is not well behaved. Her more recent comment on the Presidential race was more in character, when she said she was 'hot' and 'ready to lead'. That is the airhead the public cannot get enough of.

When company executives apologise for the disasters they have inflicted on the companies they run, it strikes an equally false note. The latest is Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland, who did so last week when he announced one of the biggest losses in British banking history. Anyone who has met Sir Fred would know his great strengths are an ability to combine strategic vision with laser-like attention to detail. He does not tell many jokes. He is tough to work for. Some describe him as autocratic - and he leaves no doubt about who is in command at RBS. So it is not that he does not do apologies; it is that he should not do them.

After such a massive loss, some might feel he has a lot to apologise for, so why in PR terms does it strike the wrong note? It jars on several levels.

It is so at odds with the established public image that it does not seem natural. Perhaps as with Paris Hilton, this is because it is not what we want from him. People who backed Sir Fred thought they were getting an ambitious, cost-cutting tough guy, not a touchy-feely softie.

There is another thing. Sir Fred and people like him received massive bonuses in the good times, though those good times have now contributed to the bust. Neither he nor any of his colleagues in other banks have offered to give any of the money back - although they do point out that the value of shares they were given has fallen. It does leave you with the feeling, though, that talk is cheap.

This brings us to the third point. Apologies only work if the person behaves differently in future. But shareholders don't want that. They want the old Fred back doing the same things - but without it ending in tears.

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