What have I got to do to make you love me
What have I got to do to make you care,
What do I do when lightning strikes me
And I wake to find that you're not there?
Anyone reading and not singing, albeit quietly, these memorable lyrics from Elton John? Explored more fully, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” does pose a great question of us communicators: Why is it hard for leaders to apologise, and be believed?
The digital revolution and 24-hour scrutiny have contributed to the latter. Insatiable market appetite for quarter-on-quarter growth also leaves little room for failure. Businesses need to continually change and adapt to market dynamics, but that may often be done through the lens of a new CEO at the helm, with change and uncertainty foisted upon an organisation by disillusioned shareholders. Aside from Unilever Global CEO Paul Polman, few have sought to offer a more measured and sustainable long-term growth plan that meets market approval.
Chasing profits by chopping to improve margins will only achieve so much. Cutting too deep leaves an organisation bleeding, with nothing left to invest and regrow. A CEO may then be forced to admit the strategy has failed, perhaps because it was misunderstood (ie, the risks and benefits weren’t communicated effectively) and they leave with a gold-encrusted pension pot intact. Saying sorry for corporate failure? Alas.
What I got to do to make you want me?
What I got to do to be heard?
What do I say when it's all over?
Sorry seems to be the hardest word.
In Japan, business leaders have been forced to make humiliating public apologies – barely an inch away from the glint of a Samurai, their guilt and contrition palpable. With nine million vehicles recalled across five continents, Toyota President Akio Toyoda bowed low at the company’s HQ: “I deeply regret that I caused concern among so many people.”
In the US, with passengers stranded for more than 10 hours on the tarmac without taking off, CEO David Neeleman made an impassioned apology, and through efforts like this his JetBlue airline still secured customer satisfaction awards that year. And yet this isn’t commonplace elsewhere.
It's sad, so sad
It's a sad, sad situation.
And it's getting more and more absurd.
Having driven an aggressive mega-merger acquisition strategy that succeeded only in wiping 140 BILLION dollars from Pfizer’s market value, the pharma company’s CEO, Hank McKinnell, walked with compensation topping US$200 million and without a vial of apology. A nice price on failure!
Shareholder and public outrage have now begun to bite back on such corporate excesses. Had “Fred the Shred” volunteered to donate a sizeable portion of his final pension and exit package then charities could have benefited from his corporate failure and his reputation may not have sunk to such tragic depths. Yet Fred hasn’t been alone in giving a half-hearted apology without demonstrating true remorse. Might Bob Diamond have survived with an apology accompanied by key heads rolling from Barclays Tower in the Libor scandal?
In sport, wouldn’t we think more of drug takers if they admitted: “Yep, I took steroids, I’m stupid, and I deserve my fate”? But that admission comes many years down the line, at the launch of an autobiography, when sympathy and support have evaporated.
It's sad, so sad
Why can't we talk it over?
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.
As communicators, we can face lawyers intent on denying use of the dreaded “s” word – arguing it would imply, or indeed confirm, acceptance of guilt, wrongdoing, responsibility, and worse, lead to compound corporate damages. But that’s where communicators must hold firm. We’re responsible for brands and without your customers’ licence to operate, you have no business. Without delivering an apology a brand can quickly commit commercial suicide. Whether it’s a CEO admitting their failure or the board agreeing it took an inappropriate strategic direction; investors and others will more readily accept an apology if they also understand where they go from there.
In a crisis, business leaders need to convey reassurance, showing they understand what’s gone wrong (if not having, at that stage, the precise reason for it), what they’ll do to repair the immediate damage and what’s already being implemented to start that reparation. They must always have one eye on the reaction and sentiment of customers, colleagues, stakeholders and general public, where relevant. The court of public opinion, as Fred, Bob & Co have learned, can come back and bite them hard! And so while sorry may be the hardest word, delivering it with compulsion, vision and direction, and without caveat, can save careers and companies.