Anyone who watched the Syracuse-Duke college basketball game Saturday night might have thought Bobby Knight had returned to the coaching ranks.
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim exploded over a key charge call and took two technical fouls with his team down two points with 10 seconds to go. By now his rants have been viewed by millions. But the most miraculous performance came a few minutes after the game when Boeheim met with the media. He was an Extreme Makeover — calm, glib, funny, a little snarky and fairly disingenuous. But never apologetic.
From a media-training point of view, he was also brilliant: He took complete control of the post-game news conference, didn’t let the questioners set the agenda and shifted the focus from his rant back to the game. Clearly most fans expected continued defiance and anger, or, a contrite apology. [Most Boeheim followers didn’t expect an apology, but it’s likely many of the Duke media did.]
This whole issue of “saying you’re sorry,” is getting a lot of attention.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Target Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel had staunch internal opposition to coming clean and making amends to customers over the company’s credit card security breach late last year. JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has been alternately ripped and praised for his handling of and apologizing for multi-billion-dollar investment and mortgage mistakes. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s held a lengthy news conference apologizing for the politically motivated closing of the George Washington Bridge exits. The list goes on.
Actually, the list is now being kept by New York Times’ columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin who on Feb. 3 wrote that there are too many insincere apologies, gloss-overs that have no weight or meaning. He pledged to track these slippery evasions.
The age of the apology is clearly upon us — and it is not just about being polite. It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis. The art of the apology has become a carefully choreographed dance: Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are “taking responsibility” and then end with, “I hope to put this behind me.”
His cynicism, or, perhaps, his careful documentation, has validity.
But it’s too simplistic.
Apology is still an important part of crisis management — if it is real, sincere and leads to a changed approach or environment. And, it has vast value, which is why people do it. Let’s look not at those who apologized, but at those who paid dearly through prolonged crises, but might have gained by sincerely doing so when first faced with a crisis.
BP CEO Tony Hayward. Lance Armstrong. Alex Rodriquez. Sarah Palin. And on, and on, and on.
Sorkin should look at a study first reported in the Jacksonville Business Journal that says bosses don’t apologize as much as they think they do. While this study, flagged by my colleague Peter Smolowitz, focuses on daily interactions between supervisors and employees, this is where CEOs learn the habit.
If you or your company made a bad decision that led to a crisis, there is no doubt that apologizing and taking responsibility for it is a key portion of the strategy to ending a crisis. If you cover up [see Target story], deny, hide, obfuscate, pretend and disassemble, media will continue to hound you for the truth and your crisis will continue unabated, cutting sales and profits, knocking down stock price.
If you deliver all the bad news up front, sincerely apologize for the impact, take responsibility for the actions that caused the crisis and detail concrete plans on how you will make amends and change the base causal circumstances, the crisis should fade.
Real remorse is readable. So are empty promises.
As Steinhafel told the Journal, “Target won’t be defined by the breach, but how we handle the breach.”
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.