Why Is Sorry The Hardest Word? Mastering The Public Apology

The Takata airbag recall story has been rumbling on for a long time now.  Defects in the company’s airbags have been blamed for a number of deaths and over a 100 injuries. In May the company recalled nearly 34 million of its airbags. It’s big news – the biggest safety recall in history – and it’s going to keep rumbling on.

Yet last Thursday (26 June) was the first time we heard a sorry from the company’s CEO. The company itself has apologised but Shigehisa Takada has been staying out of the news as much as possible.

And therein lies (part of) the problem. Try to stay out of the news when you’re a public figure and the media asks why? What are you hiding? Try to avoid the difficult questions when you’re in the midst of a crisis and you become the story.

And your company loses all public trust.

I regret that I haven’t offered enough explanations.”

Takada apologized at a press conference in Tokyo. He bowed deeply before the media. But part of that apology was for not communicating earlier.

In a crisis, transparency is of the utmost importance. In this particular crisis, life and death was involved. The CEO’s lack of a response translates as a lack of care on the part of the company.

The CEO’s apology should have been about acknowledging that other people have been affected by the airbag defects.

Instead it became about him and it became an apology for not apologizing.

Who’s to Blame?

The key thing to remember is that apologizing is not the same as accepting blame. It’s showing you understand the effects of what you’ve done or, indeed, not done.

After the terrible crash at Alton Towers theme park in the UK where four people were injured on a rollercoaster, Merlin Entertainment CEO Nick Varney issued an apology. He was available for interviews. He was able to answer questions. He was genuine and personal in his sympathy for those affected.

Varney was also able to work to remedy the situation in some small way by emphasizing Merlin’s commitment to safety. The point is, he was present.

On the flip side, Thomas Cook’s handling of the deaths of two children in Corfu in 2006 was appalling – it took them nine years to apologise, leading to headlines with phrases such as “Lack of Human Decency.”

A public apology must come early. It must be sincere. It can never be as a result of media or public pressure (it won’t be considered genuine).

Even before a company gets to the point where they must apologise, its leaders must be seen to be open, approachable and communicative and must be seen to care about the public.

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