The wrong lesson: apologies aren’t a P.R. exercise
Press Secretary Sean Spicer and United Airlines Chairman Oscar Munoz issued apologies recently, which prompted the New York Times to write about the “delicate and increasingly common ritual of the corporate and political worlds: the public apology.” It took Mr. Spicer and United Airlines several iterations to say they were sorry for their comments, and the Times wondered why public and corporate officials have so much difficulty apologizing.
The Times reporter, Michael Grynbaum, never realizes that he hasn’t gotten to the core of the problem early in his story. He leaves us with the conclusion that Mr. Spicer, Mr. Munoz, and many other officials have just not absorbed the lessons of making an effective apology. In two revealing sentences Mr. Grynbaum reports:
The fine art of repentance is a skill taught in business schools and promoted by high-priced consultants.
The key to contrition, according to public-relations experts, is projecting sincerity, humanity, and a plain-spoken demeanor — the better to convince a cynical public.
The key to an effective apology doesn’t require business classes, consultants, or public-relations experts. An apology isn’t really an apology unless the speaker means it. I’m not talking about being a good actor and delivering the right script. If you don’t really feel remorse then your apology is hollow, and all you’ve done is tried to placate the public.
Was Mr. Spicer really sorry for offending the survivors and relatives of those gassed by the Nazis? No, he was upset about letting down his boss, President Trump, and creating a distraction during this week’s news cycle. Was Oscar Munoz really sorry that security officials dragged David Dao off an airplane? No, he was responding because United Airlines’s load-factor was about to take a hit. Even if each of them had delivered a better-rehearsed statement of contrition, their respective apologies would not have been any more effective or sincere.
Most families and religious organizations teach us everything we need to know about apologizing. We know that remorse and contrition require us to take personal responsibility for our transgression. However, when we step into the public or corporate spheres those lessons are left behind. The public’s cynicism about our government and corporate institutions would be far lower if our leaders spoke from the heart instead of from a set of well-craft talking points.