All Apologies, All the Time

Like the cicadas which burrow into the ground to sleep for years at a time, only to emerge at the appointed time and descend like a plague, Apology Index is back after a long hiatus.

Your Apologist apologizes for his long absence. I know there have been many spectacular apologies over the last five years in dire need of comment and analysis. We may do an Apology Flashback or two to cover the biggest apologies we’ve missed, but with an endless gushing stream of new misdeeds, grievances, and regrets to cover, that probably won’t happen often.

For those who came in late, Apology Index covered the world of public apologies from 2007-2009, dissecting the apologies of companies, celebrities, athletes, politicians, governments, and others. Our aim is to both enlighten and entertain, with an occasional nod at being thoughtful and deep about the philosophical and practical issues of regret and forgiveness.

But not too deep.

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Helen Thomas Non-Apology Apology for Hateful Anti-Semitic Comments

Helen Thomas has been in the White House press room longer than I’ve been alive — and probably longer than you’ve been alive. She’s certainly been there too long — and every day that passes is another day too long. She’s a bitter, hateful woman, as she so charmingly made clear with her recent statement that the Jews in Israel should “Get the hell out of Palestine” and go back “home” to Germany or Poland. Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RQcQdWBqt14<br />

Unbelievable. While I’m sure the boys at Hamas and the nearest skinhead rally found her comments spot on, batty Helen has been pretty roundly condemned by most decent people, leading to her invevitable, and, quite grudging “apology”: (more…)

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Tiger Woods Apology for Serial Adultery

With the many, many cats now out of the bag, Tiger takes his third swing at an apology for his multiple infidelities, with a statement on his website:

I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity
has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children. I want
to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask
forgiveness. It may not be possible to repair the damage I’ve done, but
I want to do my best to try.

I would like to ask everyone, including my fans, the good
people at my foundation, business partners, the PGA Tour, and my fellow
competitors, for their understanding. What’s most important now is that
my family has the time, privacy, and safe haven we will need for
personal healing.

After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite
break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a
better husband, father, and person.

Again, I ask for privacy for my family and I am especially
grateful for all those who have offered compassion and concern during
this difficult period.

AI is a little rusty, but let’s take a crack at it. Tiger admits his wrongdoing (without going into the lurid details that we can all find elsewhere) and asks forgiveness. So those are points in his favor, but this comes off weak nonetheless. For one thing, it is a statement on a website. Tiger himself has disappeared from public view since his cheating ways came to light. This apology won’t quiet the storm. He will probably have to appear and speak the words in person for an apology to take.

So, at least, say William C. Rhoden at the NY Times and John “Effective Apology” Kador.

A few random thoughts:

  • Who does he really owe an apology to? His wife and family. Presumably that happened in private and is none of our business.
  • Why is he apologizing to the world at large? I didn’t care much about Tiger before this, and don’t care much about him now, so he doesn’t owe — or probably you — an apology. But it seems to have become a given that if you’re a celebrity of any stripe, and you screw up, you owe the world an apology.
  • Ok, there are a few sets beyond his family that he owes an apology.  Tiger mentions them. Business partners, his foundation, the PGA Tour, and others who will be financially harmed by his tarnished image. By damaging the “Tiger Woods” brand he has done actual harm to the interests of people beyond himself. Fair enough.
  • Prediction: We’ll be hearing another apology from Tiger before this story ends.

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Apology for Kindle-Big Brother Incident

Last week owners of the Amazon Kindle ebook reader got a chilling taste of Big Brotherism when Amazon — without warning — remotely deleted previously purchased copies of several titles from their devices. Had the book in question been Pride & Prejudice this would not have been as big of a story/public relations nightmare as it turned out to be for Amazon. But the books in question were probably the worst possible titles to have involved in such an incident — 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Yeah. So as you can imagine, the headlines practically wrote themselves:

Why Amazon went Big Brother on some Kindle e-books

Hey, Big Brother! Hands off my Kindle!

Amazon Kindle users surprised by ‘Big Brother’ move

And so forth. Twitter was all a twitter about it too. Amazon’s explanation was that the publisher of these Orwell e-books lacked the right to publish the books. When the true rights holder brought this to Amazon’s attention, Amazon removed the illegal copies from its site — properly — and also reached out in the dead of night to electronically remove copies from the devices of sleeping Kindle owners. In this (as President Obama might agree if he were so foolish as to comment on matters not pertaining to doing his job),  Amazon acted stupidly.

The explanation did little to mollify outraged Kindle owners and others concerned about Orwellian overreach. After all, if customers had previously purchased what turned out to be bootleg copies of a hardback edition of 1984, Amazon would hardly break into customers’ houses in the middle of the night to retrieve them. At least one hopes not.

Yesterday, on the Kindle owners forum at Amazon.com, CEO Jeff Bezos issued a brief apology:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO
Amazon.com

This is a good corporate apology. Maybe a bit late. But Bezos speaks in his own name and straight up says we were stupid, we deserve your scorn, we violated our own principles in this matter, and we have learned from our mistake. Bezos says more in one paragraph than some corporate apologizers manage in several pages. (Go look up that GM disaster again.)

Well done, Bezos. But I’m still not buying a Kindle.

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STRATFOR Apology for Technical Glitch

Here is a great example of an apology done right, from STRATFOR. A couple of days ago STRATFOR sent an email to subscribers, inviting them to take survey. Apparently there was a problem with the survey. Shortly thereafter, STRATFOR sent out the following:

Dear STRATFOR Reader:

My apologies. We’ve had technical and content problems with the survey we just released, and it’s apparent to us that it should never have gone out in its present form. If you’ve not yet tried to take the survey, please disregard my prior email invitation. If you’ve already attempted to take the survey, please forgive me for having wasted your time. This was poorly executed on our end, and I apologize again.

I’ll see all replies to this email, and you can also call my direct line at xxx-xxx-xxxx with any questions.

Thank you for your understanding.

Very truly yours,
Aaric Eisenstein, SVP Publishing

This is about as close to the gold standard of a corporate apology as you can get. First, it was immediate–sent out as soon as STRATFOR confirmed that there was a problem. It comes directly from the responsible corporate officer, over his signature [literally, an image of his signature that I did not reproduce here] and in his own voice. Mr. Eisenstein apologizes, describes the problem, admits fault, asks readers’ forgiveness for wasting our time, again admits fault and apologizes. Then he invites readers to email him or call his direct line if you want to vent about it. [I redacted the number. You don't need to call him.]. It’s almost like he read John Kador’s book.

But I don’t think STRATFOR needed apology advice. Their business is providing global intelligence, analyzing geopolitical events, evaluating political risk factors, etc. STRATFOR’s stock in trade is telling it like it is to the best of their ability. This technical glitch is a minor thing that may have irritated and frustrated some readers — but they turned it into an opportunity to reinforce their reputation, brand image, good name, or whatever you want to call it. This is exactly how you’d expect STRATFOR to respond — own up, apologize, fix it, move on. An A+ apology in anyone’s book!

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Alice Hoffman Apology for Psycho Twitter Rage

Author Alice Hoffman — whoever that is — apparently has a new book out, “The Story Sisters.” And if you don’t absolutely love it, she will go psycho-crazy on you, publish your phone number, and urge her legions of fans of whatever kind of fiction it is she writes to harass you.

Roberta Silman wrote a less than glowing, but far from trashing, review of “The Story Sisters” for the Boston Globe. Hoffman responded by calling her a “moron” on Twitter. Then she proceeded to have a public tweet-by-tweet meltdown. In the end, someone must have talked her off the ledge, because her Twitter feed is now gone. But good old reliable Gawker kindly preserved some of the choicest Hoffman rage tweets.

The LA Times has a roundup of the author rage story, as does — of course — the Boston Globe itself. The Globe interviews Ms. Silman about the incident. She comes across as classy, gracious, and unperturbed by the whole thing. I declare her the winner.

You can review the facts at those links. No need for me to retype them, right? Let’s get to the apology:

This statement was issued by Hoffman’s publicists on her behalf:

I feel this whole situation has been completely blown out of proportion. Of course I was dismayed by Roberta Silman’s review which gave away the plot of the novel, and in the heat of the moment I responded strongly and I wish I hadn’t. I’m sorry if I offended anyone. Reviewers are entitled to their opinions and that’s the name of the game in publishing. I hope my readers understand that I didn’t mean to hurt anyone and I’m truly sorry if I did.

Best,
Alice Hoffman

I’m a bit rusty on breaking down apologies, but this one is easy because it is so utterly lame. This is one of those conditional “I’m sorry if” apologies — i.e. “I have to pretend to apologize for PR reasons, but I don’t really want to.” There is no recognition or admission that she did anything wrong. An apology that starts out with the apologizer playing the victim card (“this whole situation has been completely blown of out proportion” [yeah, by you, psycho author]) is off to a bad start. Second sentence is more self-justification. Then the classic non-apology “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”

I can’t imagine who you might have offended, Ms. Hoffman. Perhaps the book reviewer you called a moron and further publicly insulted? Maybe you could apologize for that. Oh, but you “didn’t mean to hurt anyone” Well, okay then.

I haven’t read any of Hoffman’s books (and probably never will), but unfairly judging her body of work solely from her Twitter output and this apology–she’s overrated.

Market My Novel also has a nice discussion of Alice Hoffman’s Twitter rage.

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Ahmadinejad Demand for Apology Denied by President Obama

Iranian thug, bully, tyrant, probably not re-elected but still in office President Ahmadinejad issued a demand for U.S. President Barack Obama to apologize for criticism of Iran’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.

Not likely.

From the Washington Post:

In Washington, President Obama Friday condemned recent violence against protesters as “outrageous” and dismissed a demand by Iran’s president that he apologize for similar previous comments. Obama suggested that it was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who should be apologizing to Iranian victims and their families for the violent actions of security forces.

Ow! In your face, Mahmoud!

Said President Obama:

“I don’t take Mr. Ahmadinejad seriously about apologies, particularlygiven the fact that the United Stats has gone out of its way not tointerfere with the election process in Iran.” He said Ahmadinejadshould “think carefully” about his “obligations to his own people,”notably the “families of those who have been beaten, shot or detained.”

Glad to see the global Obama apology tour has its limits.

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David Letterman Apology to Sarah Palin for Joke About Her Daughter

David Letterman apologizes for his recent crude joke about daughter of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.  Took him long enough.

It doesn’t make any difference what my intent was, it’s the perception.
And, as they say about jokes, if you have to explain the joke, it’s not
a very good joke.  And I’m certainly – ” (audience applause) “– thank
you. Well, my responsibility – I take full blame for that. I told a bad
joke. I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely
meaningless compared to the perception. And since it was a joke I told,
I feel that I need to do the right thing here and apologize for having
told that joke. It’s not your fault that it was misunderstood, it’s my
fault. That it was misunderstood.” (audience applauds) “Thank you. So I
would like to apologize, especially to the two daughters involved,
Bristol and Willow, and also to the governor and her family and
everybody else who was outraged by the joke. I’m sorry about it and
I’ll try to do better in the future. Thank you very much.” (audience
applause).

Full text of Letterman’s apology to Sarah Palin is here.

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AirTran Apology for ejecting Muslim passengers

We can pretty much depend on our nation’s airlines to provide us with at least one good apology-worthy incident each month. Granted, we’ll never hear an apology for most of the things that airlines should apologize for — like cramped seats, ridiculous extra fees, late flights, canceled flights, etc. Personally, I always cheer when an airline goes bankrupt, simply because most of them have ticked me off at one time or another. Although bankruptcy doesn’t seem to kill them. They just rise up from the grave and go right back to overcharging, frustrating and inconveniencing their passengers. Or, as in the case of AirTran this week, throwing their passengers off the plane.

What happened? From the AP story, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Washington — AirTran Airways apologized Friday to nine Muslims kicked
off a New Year’s Day flight to Florida after other passengers reported
hearing a suspicious remark about airplane security. One of the
passengers said the confusion started at Reagan National Airport in
Washington, D.C., when he talked about the safest place to sit on an
airplane.

Yeah, don’t talk about that.

… Irfan said when he boarded the flight Thursday, he mentioned
something to his wife and sister-in-law about having to sit in the
back. His sister-in-law replied that she believed the back of the
airplane was the safest, but Irfan believed it was better to be by the
wings.

“She said, ‘Yes, I guess it makes sense not to be close to the
engine in case something happens,” Irfan recalled Friday. “It was a
very benign conversation.”

Or so he would have us believe, because …

Shortly after taking their seats, members of the group was
approached by federal air marshals and taken off the plane, Irfan said.
They stood in the jet bridge connected to the airport and answered
questions while other passengers exited and glared at them.

No doubt. Although maybe they should have been glaring at the jackass who dropped a dime on this group and caused everyone to miss their flight.

Irfan said he thought he and the others were profiled because of
their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore headscarves,
traditional Muslim attire.

That very well might have had something to do with it.   Now for the apology, in the form of a statement on AirTran’s website:

AirTran Airways Offers Apology to Customers on Flight 175 Yesterday

ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 2 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ — AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of AirTran Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: AAI), today issued the following statement regarding AirTran flight 175 originating at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on January 1, 2009.

Gotta love that personal touch. This is a run-of-the-mill routine corporate apology. Impersonal corporate third person voice. Yeah, yeah, we insulted an inconvenienced you, we’re sorry, whatever.

Our goal at AirTran Airways is to offer a safe, pleasant and positive travel experience for all customers every day on every flight. We sincerely regret that the passengers on flight 175 did not have a positive travel experience on January 1, 2009.

See? So heartwarming and deeply felt.

Security is a shared responsibility and this incident highlights the multiple layers of security that are in place in today’s aviation environment. While ultimately this issue proved to be a misunderstanding, the steps taken were necessary.

It also highlights the multiple layers of numbskullery and inane nonsense that pass for airline security, but that is another whole topic.

Alert passengers reported to the flight crew what they believed were inappropriate comments allegedly made by one of the passengers onboard, and the flight crew notified the federal air marshals that were assigned to the flight.

Am I the only one troubled by the notion that my right to fly is subject to the discretion of what  “alert passengers” nearby think is an inappropriate comment?

The federal air marshals on board contacted local and federal law enforcement officials who came to the gate and escorted the individuals in question off the aircraft to ensure they posed no threat to the flight. After deplaning the remaining passengers and performing a sweep of the aircraft and rescreening all passengers, crew, checked and carry-on baggage, the flight departed two hours late without the nine passengers who were detained for questioning.

See what I mean? Some ” alert” dope in the next row thinks you look funny and you get detained and questioned by federal officials.

We regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did on New Year’s Day, but we trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount and cannot be compromised.

Translation: It wasn’t really our fault. We had no choice. National security!

We apologize to all of the passengers — to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight. Nobody on Flight 175 reached their destination on time on New Year’s Day, and we regret it.

Hey, what can you do? Crazy times we live in. Just better hope the guy sitting next to you doesn’t suddenly accuse you of saying something suspicious. But if he does,and you get hauled off by the Feds, we will regret you not reaching your destination.

The airline has refunded the air fares of the nine passengers detained for questioning, has agreed to reimburse the passengers for expenses incurred by taking another airline and has also offered to transport the passengers home to Washington, DC, free of charge.

We’ll also refund your ticket … and invite you to fly with us again, free of charge! Feel better yet?

Sadly, this is a run-of-the-mill and not very sincere apology because these kinds of incidents happen with such frequency that they have become commonplace. Bad weather, mechanical difficulty, missing crew, wild accusations of paranoid passengers … there are all routine causes of delay that generate pro forma apologies from airlines.

Just for fun, check out AirTran’s Mission Statement.

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GM Apology for Making Bad Cars — Part 3: Special Comment from Special Guest John Kador

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(General Motors week continues here at Apology Index
  (not as gory as Shark Week, but in some ways much more scary!). You’ve read my take on the GM non-apology and a roundup of analysis from others, such as the ever-delectable Michelle Malkin. Today we have a holiday treat for you — AI’s first ever Special Guest blogger!

In our coverage of public apologies, AI has returned to certain themes again and again:

  • What are the elements of a sincere and effective apology?
  • Why do some apologies leave a bad taste in our mouths?
  • What are the special considerations for corporate apologies as opposed to apologies by individuals?

While AI haphazardly hits these points from time to time, other students of apology take a serious and systematic look at apologies, the ethics thereof, and how to apologize effectively in personal and business situations. Bestselling author John Kador has done just that, both in his forthcoming book Effective Apology and in articles and commentaries online.

Despite his own expertise–and in a curious lapse of good judgment–John reads Apology Index. He had some thoughts on GM’s “apology” this week that he wanted to share with AI readers, so I’ve invited John to take the AI wheel today with this Special Guest commentary.)
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GM: Contrition is Good, But Where’s the Apology?

By John Kador

General Motors, the world’s largest automaker, is taking baby steps on the road to apology.    GM has been widely applauded for “apologizing” for its mistakes in a full-page advertisement in Automotive News.  But while the company admits mistakes, concedes it has disappointed consumers, and promises to do better, there is no real apology there.  Not yet.  In due course, GM will issue a genuine apology, but this is not it.  Not even close.  And when it does we will know it, because while it is hard to define effective apology, we know it when we see it.  

A genuine apology meets five requirements.  I call these the Five Rs:  Recognition, Responsibility, Regret, Restitution, and Repetition.  The GM statement meets only two of them.

An apology is effective when it specifies what the offender is apologizing for, accepts responsibility for the outcome, expresses regret by using the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize,” offers appropriate restitution, and promises not to repeat the offensive behavior.  The GM statement recognizes some of the mistakes the company made.  It also suggests that it has learned from its mistakes and will not repeat them.  But the statement falls short of effective apology by failing to explicitly accept responsibility for its predicament.  Indeed, later in its statement it blames a “perfect storm” of economic conditions.  There may be truth in this, but it’s more of an explanation than an apology.

But as an apology, the GM statement misses the boat by failing to address the two hardest pieces of effective apology:  regret and restitution.

No Regret, No Restitution

Expressing regret or remorse is the central part of any apology.  It is here that the apologizer offers the magic words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”   Any other language pales in power.  For many people, especially leaders and people in authority, these are the two hardest words to utter.  For too long, leaders have assumed that apologizing is a sign of weakness and that followers will be rattled by evidence that leaders can make mistakes.  But those attitudes are being replaced by evidence that, to the contrary, the willingness to apologize is taken as an indication of confidence.  Followers know that no one is perfect.  What they want are leaders who can admit and learn from their mistakes.  What they want from their leaders is accountability and transparency.

Restitution is the other stumbling block where many apologizers pull back and thereby limit the effectiveness of their apology.  Restitution is the practical attempt by the offender to restore the relationship to what it was before, to disgorge property or privilege that he or she unfairly gained, and to demonstrate a measure of humility.  Restitution requires more than words.  You cannot talk your way out of a situation you acted yourself into.  Restitution is often painful, but in the long run it’s less painful than staying on the road of denial and defensiveness.  

GM has taken small steps on the road to apology, and for this the company deserves commendation.  But if a genuine apology is what it wants, GM still has a way to go.  This is part of what GM said in its ad titled “GM’s Commitment to the American People”:

 . . .  we acknowledge we have disappointed you. At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market. We also biased our product mix toward pick-up trucks and SUVs. And, we made commitments to compensation plans that have proven to be unsustainable in today’s globally competitive industry. We have paid dearly for these decisions, learned from them and are working hard to correct them by restructuring our U.S. business to be viable for the long term.

Nothing is more certain than GM will eventually issue a more complete apology.  When it does, the apology will come from CEO Rick Wagoner, who as the leader of GM, will accept personal responsibility.  It will be Wagoner’s final gesture of leadership at GM.  The apology may well sound something like this.  The first paragraph is pretty much the same:

On behalf of the entire General Motors team, I acknowledge we have disappointed you.  We violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market. We also biased our product mix toward pick-up trucks and SUVs. And, we made commitments to compensation plans that have proven to be unsustainable in today’s globally competitive industry.

These failures will now require substantial sacrifice from the entire GM family.  As chairman and CEO of General Motors, I accept responsibility for these failures.  To the employees, retirees, dealers, consumers, and the American taxpayer who is now being called on to sacrifice for us, I say I apologize.  I’m sorry for my arrogance and failure of leadership.  I have always insisted that GM executives take responsibility for their failures.  I can ask no less of myself.  For this reason, I have informed the board of directors that I am resigning from my positions as chairman and CEO of General Motors.  I believe GM will learn enduring lessons from its mistakes and will be better positioned not to repeat them.  We are proud of our century of contribution to U.S. prosperity and look forward to making an equally meaningful contribution during our next 100 years.

Perceptions of Apology Have Shifted

The recent experience of GM, as well as Ford and Chrysler, validates the shifting perceptions of contrition and apology.  When the CEOs of the Detroit Three first went before Congress to plead for a bailout, they were roundly criticized for flying to DC in three separate private jets.  The CEOs were tone-deaf to the requirements for contrition and humility.  They walked away empty-handed.  But they quickly learned that strength flows not from defending themselves, shifting responsibility to the economy, or combativeness but from demonstrating contrition, admitting mistakes, and humbling themselves.  They walked (or jetted) away with nothing but scathing criticism.  For their next appearance before Congress, the CEOs drove hybrid cars and were willing to admit mistakes and accept salary reductions.   They drove back to Detroit with a promise of help, albeit at a level half of what they requested.

I believe that if they had apologized in terms I outlined above, the Big Three would be in a much stronger position to get the resources they need.  The take-away from all of this is, that morality aside, apology is effective.  It’s not only the virtuous thing for an organization to apologize when it makes mistakes, but it’s often the most direct avenue to getting what it wants. This is true for individuals as well as organizations.

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