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When the nonapology apology won't cut it

Public figures grapple with how to say 'sorry' - yet stay out of court.

After please and thank you, the words I'm sorry are among the first parents teach their children.

But how quickly lessons can be unlearned - at least judging from the bevy of professionals at a Boston panel on how, when, and why to atone.

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The forum, hosted last week by the Boston public relations firm Solomon McCown & Co., was not of the "I'm sorry for stepping on your foot" variety.

Rather, this was a discourse on the fine art of the public apology: How to express remorse, restore reputations, or otherwise untangle organizations from PR nightmares - all without making a litigious mess.

The apology has been all the patter among politicos and other public figures in recent years. They've asked repentance for everything from the worst atrocities of the 20th century to misguided personal choices.

Aaron Lazare, author of "On Apology" and a dean at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says research he conducted - though by no means scientific - showed that public apologies doubled from 1990 to 2002. "Apologies across the world are getting more popular," he says.

Lawyers and hospital executives have long lost sleep over "admissions of guilt." Craig Dallon, a law professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., says that when he practiced law years ago, he advised clients to keep mum.

"It's not that we want them to be bad people," he says. "We don't want it to come back and hurt them later."

In a post-Enron world, the apology is baffling, well, just about everyone. Dr. Lazare says he receives calls from churches and synagogues wanting to learn more about repentance; law schools looking at alternative dispute resolution; and executives at hospitals and businesses seeking to relearn the skills they absorbed with their ABCs. "The diversity of audiences is just dramatic," he says.

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Why? Lazare hypothesizes that more women in the workforce has played a role. Women, he says, have always been more effective in this realm.

Technology, too, has changed the rules of apology engagement. Take Abu Ghraib. Prisoner abuse isn't new, says Lazare, but photos of that scandal were circulated via Internet and cellphone within minutes. The resulting outcry quickly compelled President Bush to apologize. "Everybody knows what everybody is doing," Lazare says.

Apologies can also be powerful deterrents - something which professionals, politicians, and legislatures are increasingly recognizing. Professor Dallon says that despite the bad rap given to those who sue, not everyone is looking for cash.

Many want to express their side of a story, or simply to know that someone is listening. "Sometimes an apology can actually make litigation go away," says Dallon.

In recent years, several states have passed laws to encourage doctors to make apologies by making them inadmissible in civil court.

More mea culpas, however, won't be a panacea, say experts. Too often, they say, apologies are bureaucratic, wooden, and devoid of all discernible remorse - a variety that's been coined with Seinfeldian irony as the "nonapology apology."

In what itself could have been a Seinfeld episode, panel moderator David Yas, the publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, replayed a scene he said underscored the futility of an insincere apology.

In the wake of controversy about allegations of steroid use, New York Yankee slugger Jason Giambi held a much criticized press conference this winter, where the baseball player apologized five times, but never for anything specific.

When reporters asked what he was sorry for, Mr. Giambi, according to Mr. Yas's recounting, demurred and merely offered up another "I'm sorry." The panel and attendees in Boston - presumably all Red Sox fans - couldn't stop laughing.