This piece is part of this week’s On Leadership roundtable exploring apologies — in light of CEO Reed Hastings’ ill-received mea culpa for Netflix changes.
It’s hard to keep count of all the bold-face names making highly public apologies in recent years. There’s Alex Rodriguez, who, just 48 hours after reports surfaced that he’d used performance-enhancing drugs, went on ESPN for an exclusive interview admitting his regret. There was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who back in 2007 took the art of atonement to a whole new level when he published a full-page newspaper ad, apologizing to his then-wife in an open letter that became widely known as the “apologia.”
And, while not as candid as Rodriguez or as dramatic as Berlusconi, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings sent an repentant email to subscribers that got seemingly just as much attention. Though much less effective, Hastings’ apology is the most recent example of a growing trend today among politicians, celebrities and companies to try pivoting away from a crisis by taking responsibility and expressing contrition.
The use of the apology in the modern crisis playbook is a sign of our times.
In a 24/7 news world, one cycle in the modern spin machine can obliterate a brand. The power of social media means that one homemade video that goes viral can lead to a marketing crisis and one customer’s tweeted complaint can instantly become news. And since the Internet lets news travel around the world several times before you’ve even had a chance to even assemble the facts, you must be prepared to think strategically about how to get control of a story before it’s too late.
The last few years have shown us the dangers of that speed for leaders of all kinds. A politician like Eliot Spitzer can be riding high in the polls one day and driven out of office the next. Others, like N.Y. Rep. Anthony Weiner, can have a hard time not only keeping his tweets in his Twitter, but keeping pace with the power of digital proof. And in the span of an early morning, Tiger Woods can lose his billion-dollar brand image as one of the world’s most respected athletes.
It hasn’t always been this way. Embarrassing stories would wither away between evening news broadcasts, and complaints would often cease to become news. But in today’s incessant media environment, there is only one thing that can help to preserve a politician’s image, a celebrity’s reputation or a company’s brand: Credibility. As a result, the apology, which is a way to claim one’s credibility when facing a modern-day media storm, is increasingly becoming a critical tool for surviving a crisis.
If done right, mea culpas work for three reasons. First, as long as what happened is explained in a forthright way, an apology draws a bright, indelible line between past and future. This allows the issue to be pushed to the side, and audiences can focus on the future, avoiding the “drip, drip, drip” dynamic that can lead to a slow and painful death by a thousand leaks.
Second, an apology communicates both externally and internally that an organization’s leaders have openly and candidly acknowledged the current approach’s problems and the need to operate differently in the future. This helps to avoid the “it’s the cover up and not the crime” trap that causes the downfall of so many.
Finally, the apology demonstrates a determination to close the book on what has not worked and to actually take advantage of the current situation. By communicating in an open and honest fashion, leaders can turn a crisis into an opportunity.
Of course, even if apologies from leaders are becoming more common, they’re not always equally effective. How is it, for instance, that the former mayor of San Francisco can apologize for having an affair with his chief of staff’s wife and go on to be re-elected with historically high margins, while a dynamic and effective Governor Spitzer is forced from office?
The answer usually comes down to the what, the when or the how. In some cases, the nature of the underlying misconduct—say, an inappropriate relationship with a staffer versus one with a member of an escort service. In other cases, the authenticity of the apology (or how good the leader is at sounding authentic, at least) can make all the difference. Finally, the timing of an apology can make or break the response to it. If it appears immediately sincere rather than made after weeks of consulting with lawyers, it helps. If it isn’t made until someone has effectively been forced to say “uncle”—see Tiger Woods—it doesn’t.
But even if you get the what, the when and the how right, you can still go wrong. The best apologies share other key characteristics. The decision to express regret comes from the top. The admission of guilt consists of more than just words; it’s followed up with genuine, tangible actions that mean something to the customers, citizens or fans who were affected.
Finally, the apology itself is clear and unambiguous, and only has to be made once. The public “gets it” that to err is indeed human. People tend to be very forgiving of a mistake, especially when an apology is given and full responsibility is taken. However, fair warning to those who fumble the apology the first time, or make a series of mistakes. If that happens, the public will not be forgiving. Generally speaking, you get just one bite at the apology apple.
Christopher Lehane, who served as a lawyer and spokesperson in the Clinton White House, is a partner in the crisis communication firm of Fabiani & Lehane and is the co-writer of “Knife Fight”, a forthcoming film on damange control.
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