To Apologize or Not to Apologize?

In his February 28 Blog posting entitled "On the Inadvisability of Apologizing," Stanley Bing commented on the Maxim debacle and the implications for the practice of apologizing more generally. He writes:

"I read an interesting item in a trade publication this morning. It’s about Maxim Magazine, which many men read for the articles....Okay, now what strikes you about this? Several things occur to me:

1. If Mr. Kaminsky had not apologized, I would not have been aware of his distress or the depredations his magazine had wrought on contemporary culture;

2. The apology did not make Maxim look any better, in fact created the impression that this happens all the time and that on this occasion they got caught;

3. It was probably better for the Black Crowes that nobody knew about it either. Now not only readers of Maxim know that the magazine’s reviewer thought the album was so boring he couldn’t even finish listening to it, but readers of the Hollywood Reporter do, too, and that includes a lot of people in the entertainment business, whereas readers of Maxim are not always in that psychographic."


I responded to Bing's post by pointing out that his argument was interesting but incredibly weak. As I explained in my comments, I can easily think of (and offer) hundreds of reasons, examples, research reports and studies from the business, medical and sports worlds that support the exact opposite argument. In fact, the Maxim example disproves Bing's point -- had the magazine's editors issued a "better" apology the entire matter would have disappeared. It was the absence of an apology that escalated their PR crisis and will probably lead to the firing of Maxim's managing editor and music critic.

Bing's reply appears below:

"You know, what really interests me about the whole apology thing is not really whether people should do it or not. We know that an apology is appropriate and necessary in a lot of situations. What I think I’m writing about here is that in our culture apologies are not sufficient. They are received poorly and often function not as they were intended to do… rather, they incite those who have been wronged to ever-greater levels of indignation. Maybe what I’m thinking about is how we’ve lost the ability to accept an apology with grace. For some reason, only decent people tend to be the ones who offer apologies, and are punished for it. It’s the losers who never apologize and therefore never have to pay for their actions. This all comes back to corporations. Corporations that apologize for things, like governments that do so, are not rewarded for their honesty and humility. They are crushed. So what’s the upside?"

My response follows:

I appreciate your concession, Bing, that “an apology is appropriate and necessary in a lot of situations.” But you go on to argue “that in our culture apologies are not sufficient. They are received poorly and often function not as they were intended to do… rather, they incite those who have been wronged to ever-greater levels of indignation.”

Bing, this is simply not the case, but I don’t fault you for thinking it is. As someone who has spent a great deal of time working through so many different aspects of apologies I can assure you that if delivered well they can do wonders — in any business, political or sports setting. For example, we recently reviewed several HGH-steroid-induced-apologies from several MLB players for CNN’s Sports Illustrated.

What we found, as expected, was that Andy Pettitte did much better job than everyone else — including Eric Gagne and Paul Lo Duca — for very predictable reasons. We haven’t “lost the ability to accept an apology with grace”, we’re just becoming a little tired of weak, self-serving apologies that are dishonest and dismissive. And with respect to corporations, those executives and CEOs who take customer service and customer loyalty very seriously are rewarded with an expanding customer and client base usually taken from other companies whose executives just don’t get it. The facts on this issue are not on your side, Bing, but your opinion about apologies, unfortunately, does represent the conventional wisdom.

Thanks for a great exchange on an important subject

Peter