Saturday, 16 July 2011

How to say sorry in business

My interest in human behaviour and the effect it has on business means that the News International story becomes more compelling by the minute.

First we have the scandal, the shock and the disgust at the bribing of police and the multiple hacking of phones of vulnerable individuals. Then we have the denials, the admissions, the closure of a major newspaper and the potential involvement of families of 9/11 victims. This transatlantic dimension was probably the tipping point for the Murdoch empire as Rupert Murdoch accepted Rebekah Brooks’ resignation and hired a major PR firm for belated damage limitation.

Hence the start of ‘the apology phase’. This weekend, Rupert Murdoch placed advertisements in major newspapers ‘apologising for the serious wrongdoing’

We are sorry.

The News of the World was in the business of holding others to account. It failed when it came to itself.

We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred.

We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected.

We regret not acting faster to sort things out.

I realise that simply apologising is not enough.

Our business was founded on the idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society. We need to live up to this.

In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused, you will hear more from us.

Rupert Murdoch.

(published in the Times Newspaper, and other publications 16th July 2011)

But how genuine and how effective is this apology? As Poirot, Sherlock Holmes or maybe even the later great Columbo may say – let us examine the evidence…

Speed of apology:
Stephen R Covey in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says that to ensure personal integrity you should apologise quickly and sincerely. The story of the hacking of the phone of murder victim Millie Dowler broke on 4th July. Twelve days ago

Depth of apology:
Covey also refers to an Eastern saying – ‘if you are going to bow, bow low’. I’m not convinced that seven lines is the equivalent of a low bow.

Language used:
In Peter Collett’s fascinating ‘The Book of Tells’, the author outlines how much you can tell regarding someone’s sincerity from their choice of words. Any ownership of the situation and truth in meaning should include personal attachment – i.e. the magic word ‘I’. This demonstrates that the speaker or writer genuinely feels the sentiment expressed. The heading for the apology advertisements was ‘WE are sorry’. Of the 7 lines in these statements, only one contained the word ‘I’ as in ‘I realise that simply apologising is not enough’. Yep, Rupert, we guessed that you realised that when you closed the paper and sacked the editor (sorry – let her go). No personal ownership with any of the other statements though?

Taking the rap (or not):
In the ‘Rules of Management’, Richard templar states that the good manager will always take the rap. Mmm – I still can’t see any evidence of any personal ‘rap-taking’

The perfect apology format:
In business, quick apologies and direct action to rectify mistakes can actually have a beneficial impact on the client relationship. To be fair to News International and their PR advisers, this was always going to be an uphill struggle. But how should you formulate an effective apology strategy?
·         Give a clear overview of the situation and circumstances
·         Acknowledge the damage caused
·         Take responsibility for the issues
·         Express genuine regret and seek forgiveness
·         Offer recompense if appropriate
·         Outline the actions planned to rectify the problem
·         Give reassurance that there will be no repeat of the issue and outline the plans to ensure this

Murdoch’s PR people - take note.


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