February 23, 2010

I’ve resisted writing about Tiger Woods for a few reasons. First, nobody is perfect – we all screw-up now and then. Next, it has felt like low hanging fruit; it’s too easy to poke fun at the guy when he’s in a ditch – I consider that cheating. Much in the way that Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t swear in his routines – he considers it “taking the easy way out”. I see Jerry’s point but Chris Rock is sure funny, and his quote “A man is only as faithful as his options” seems very appropriate given this subject matter. Anyway, I’ve decided to chat with you about Tiger because it feels like we should analyze his public apology last week, and maybe learn from it. Actually it’s not just Mr. Woods who is in the apologetic frame of mind. Today, James Lentz the President of Toyota’s US Operations publicly apologized during a congressional testimony.

At some point we’ve all done it – made the apology. Maybe not while 30 million people are watching or to members of the United States Congress, but we’ve found the strength and courage to say “I’m sorry – I was wrong – I shouldn’t have done that”. Apologies are never easy especially if you’re staring into a camera apologizing to millions of angry people in TV Land. You’ve likely seeing one or more of these public apologies: Bill Clinton apologizing about his tryst with Monica, Russell Crowe for throwing a telephone at a hotel bell-boy, Michael Vick for animal cruelty, and the list goes on and on. What I’m wanting to analyze is not whether Toyota knew the brakes didn’t work, or Tiger did “it” cause he could, or if Bill really thought “that” didn’t qualify as sex – no – I want to look at what makes a good mea culpa.

You may be surprised but there has been extensive research on what qualifies as a good apology and what doesn’t. So many nuances can make or break the apology; tone, sorrowful look, tears, attire, body positioning, eye-contact, no eye-contact, too much eye-contact, etc. In many ways preparing for a public apology is much like a launch of a new product. Who is the audience? What do they want to hear? What don’t they want to hear? How much is enough? Is it – the product/apology – relevant in their lives? And will they talk about it amongst their friends, blog about it, tweet it, put it on their wall – and so on. I don’t recall every having to work with a client to publicly apologize but if I had here are some considerations and tips I would have shared. Hypothetically of course.

The CEO is not always the ideal person to make the apology. Although viewed as admirable it is not always necessary to have a company’s top-dog make the public apology. It may feel like the right decision at the time, and in some cases it is, but not always. The downside to not having the CEO speak is the potential risk of people criticizing the company for not taking the mistake serious enough. But the decision to use the CEO should be weighed carefully.

Say you’re sorry. Many well intended apologies never end-up being apologies because the person delivering them doesn’t say I AM SORRY. They’ll dance around it by saying things like “I’d like to apologize” or “I’m asking for your forgiveness”. Just say it and mean it. Otherwise don’t waste anyone’s time.

Don’t make excuses. One way to quickly ruin a perfectly good apology is to make excuses for your actions. You’ll lose your audience before you ever get started down the path of redemption. Own it, don’t make excuses for it. Tiger said he felt a sense of entitlement; why because he can hit a tiny ball in a hole from 400 yards away? So…that makes it cool to sleep around?

Do not deliver the apology as if you’re reading lines in a Middle School play. We’re not robots or machines – we’re living, feeling individuals. It’s okay to display some emotion – but take it easy on the tears, that shows weakness. If you’re going to apologize it should come from the heart (and maybe a little bit from a PR person). And don’t apologize into a Teleprompter, it doesn’t feel real.

Don’t say too much, but say enough. This is a tricky one. An apology needs to show an acknowledgement of a bad decision(s) but it shouldn’t sidetrack into areas that are not relevant to the incident(s) at hand. Exercise brevity – but make sure the key points are addressed.

Have a remedy. Once the apology is made, be prepared to share what you are doing right now to fix the problem: pulling the product from store shelves, entering a rehab program, paying the people back, doing community service, only sleeping with your wife, etc. People need to hear that you’re sorry AND that you have a plan in place so you don’t have to apologize a second time around. That gets really, really tricky.

I hope our time together today was of value and has given you some good pointers if you’re ever needing to apologize. If not, I’d like to offer a heartfelt, and sincere apology for wasting your time. For that, I am genuinely sorry.

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