Why Apple needed to apologize


In this Sept. 12, 2012, file photo, Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks following an introduction of the new iPhone 5 in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/AP)
Jena McGregor
Columnist April 2, 2013

Tim Cook is getting good at saying he’s sorry.

Last September, the Apple CEO pled forgiveness to Apple customers for the company’s faulty new mapping software. Then on Monday, the CEO of the consumer technology giant apologized to customers in China for “any concern or misunderstanding” resulting from the company’s response to criticism of its customer-service practices in the country. “We realize that a lack of communication in this process has led the outside to believe that Apple is arrogant and doesn’t care or value consumers’ feedback,” Cook wrote.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

A little back story is in order. In recent weeks, Apple’s warranty policies have come under fire in China’s state-run media. First, the country’s largest state-run TV network ran an investigative report criticizing the company. More attacks followed in other government-owned media outlets, including an article titled “Defeat Apple’s Incomparable Arrogance.” The Chinese regulator for business practices called for “strengthened supervision” of the company.

In response, Cook issued an apology saying, among other things, that Apple would improve its repair policy, increase supervision and training given to authorized service providers, and make changes to its warranty policy. “We also realize that we still have a lot to learn on operating and communicating in China,” he wrote, seemingly asking forgiveness in advance for any future service slip-ups.

Was it the right call? Typically, such rare apologies from corporate CEOs get showered with praise, as was the case with Cook’s atonement over the maps software debacle. Showing enough humility to admit a mistake and having the willingness to correct past wrongs earns points with both customers and observers of leaders’ behavior.

But Cook’s decision to bow to Chinese government criticism saw much more debate. Some analysts called it a mistake, giving the state-run media more credibility when customers were already defending Apple for its relatively good service. Amid strange developments like a rumored state-sponsored celebrity campaign to bash the company, as well as questions about intentions behind the Chinese media’s criticisms, some critics could see the apology as making Apple appear “weak.” Meanwhile, others cheered Cook’s mea culpa as doing its job, repairing relationships in China where navigating official channels is complex, to say the least.

My take? Some battles are not worth fighting, and this was one of them. For Cook, the critical importance of the Chinese market meant the apology was worth it, whatever the source of the complaints-or the underlying reason for them-may have been. If anything, he might have addressed the complaints earlier. Reports say the company “initially dismissed” the criticisms. Saying sorry is never easy for any leader, or under any circumstances. But doing it quickly usually means it gets a little less attention.

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