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2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

By Kimberly Weisul

Why is it so hard for the rich and powerful to apologize? Because the corporate apology is no ordinary apology. Upset your customers badly enough, and they'll demand not just a mea culpa, but some kind of restitution. Which can get awfully expensive.

So executives are loath to say anything that implies legal responsibility, and taking responsibility for one's actions is, well, the key to a real apology. "I deeply regret that the loss of life" is not the same as saying "I'm sorry that my company caused the deaths of 5,000." Tokyo Electric Power Company, facing a failing and dangerous nuclear power plant, was  left issuing expressions of sympathy that only sound like apologies. Such as this from Tepco CEO Masataka Shimizu: "We believed we had built nuclear plants that could withstand natural disasters, but in the end this situation arose, and for that I am truly sorry."

Of course, some other executives have done far worse.
 
Here's are the CEOs who know how to apologize—and the chieftains who would have been better off keeping mum.
 
Photo by Getty

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: Pitch Perfect

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: Pitch Perfect

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: Pitch Perfect

The snafu: Amazon remotely deleted copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from customers' kindles. Amazon claimed the copies of the books were illegal, and refunded those who had unwittingly bought them, but still, the irony was breathtaking.

The apology: The company's actions were "stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles." CEO Jeff Bezos pledged "to use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward."

Rating: Five stars. Bezos admitted that the company's actions were wrong. The apology was addressed to the right people—Amazon customers.  Bezos convincingly made the case that the company had learned its lesson.

Photo Illustration: BNET

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman: A Customer Favorite

Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman: A Customer Favorite

Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman: A Customer Favorite

The snafu: Amidst unpredictable flight cancellations, and with JetBlue reservations agents all but unreachable, dozens of passengers were stranded on the tarmac for ten hours before their plane eventually took off.

The apology: CEO David Neeleman released a letter, saying, "We are sorry and embarrassed… Last week was the worst operational week in JetBlue's seven-year history… This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel, and… we know we failed to deliver on this promise last week."

Rating: Four stars. This letter is often held up as the model of a successful corporate apology, and I agree that it is one of the best. JetBlue was clear in outlining how it planned to better serve customers in the future, publishing its Customer Bill of Rights. Yet, while there are lines such as "we let you down" and "we are deeply sorry," Neeleman never actually admits that JetBlue's actions, inaction, or unpreparedness caused its customers to be stranded. Mostly, the weather gets the blame for that.

Photo By Getty

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

BP CEO Tony Hayward: Too Many Freudian Slips

BP CEO Tony Hayward: Too Many Freudian Slips

BP CEO Tony Hayward: Too Many Freudian Slips

The snafu: Tony Hayward, BP's CEO, snapped that "I'd like my life back," as the company failed to stop the underwater well spewing oil into the gulf.

The apology: "I made a hurtful and thoughtless comment... When I read that recently, I was appalled. I apologize, especially to the families of the 11 men who lost their lives in this tragic accident. … Those words don't represent how I feel about this tragedy, and certainly don't represent the hearts of the people of BP."

Rating: Three stars. This is actually a pretty good apology—it's clear what Hayward is apologizing for, he expresses remorse, apologizes, and goes on to say how he and BP are working to fix the mess in the Gulf. But there is almost nothing Hayward could have said to get himself out of this one. There is no way that a carefully crafted apology, no matter how abject, is going to be taken as a more accurate barometer of Hayward's state of mind than a spontaneous remark, especially given his history of gaffes. And so,  it was no big shock when, a few months later, BP announced that Hayward was stepping down as CEO.

Photo By Getty

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda: Too Little, Too Late

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda: Too Little, Too Late

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda: Too Little, Too Late

The snafu: Faulty accelerator pedals, faulty floor mats and other defects that led to the recall of millions of Toyotas and allegedly were responsible car accidents, including fatalities.

The apology: "I, Akio Toyoda, deeply regret the inconvenience and concern caused to our customers and others by our recent recalls of multiple vehicle models."

Rating: Two stars, partly because this followed months of stonewalling. It also sidesteps the elephant in the room: It's not the inconvenience of recalls that bothers people. It's the fact that people died while Toyota was denying anything was wrong with its cars. That being said, the apology did get some things right: It outlined steps Toyota would take to improve quality in the future, and it said that changes had already been made to new Priuses. It also explained how 'quality problems' (this part of the apology deftly avoided specifically mentioning accelerators) were counter to what Toyota sees as its culture. A few weeks later, before Congress, Toyoda also issued a fuller apology,  with tears, but Congress, by then, was unmoved.

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

Sony CEO Howard Stringer: Excuses, Excuses

Sony CEO Howard Stringer: Excuses, Excuses

Sony CEO Howard Stringer: Excuses, Excuses

The snafu: This spring Sony experienced a massive breach of its Playstation and Qriocity networks, affecting at least 100 million accounts. Some 12 million of those accounts included unencrypted credit card information.  Rep. Mary Bono Mack, chair of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, referred to it as the "Great Brink's robbery" of data breaches.

The apology: What Howard Stringer, Sony's CEO, said, "As a company we — and I — apologize for the inconvenience and concern caused by this attack....[We] have teams working around the clock and around the world to restore your access to those services as quickly, and as safely, as possible."

Rating: Half a star. First, Stringer's statement followed six days of silence, during which Sony shut down its networks but offered no explanation. Second, apologizing for "inconvenience and concern" isirritating: By using this wording, Sony dodges any responsibility—legal, financial, or otherwise—for the data breach. What Sony really needs to apologize for is its lousy security, and that hasn't happened. Even more irritating, Stringer's apology notes, "In the last few months, Sony has faced a terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan."

Yikes! Is this offered up as an excuse for corporate negligence? Or is the data breach being somehow compared to a natural disaster of historic proportions and the resulting nuclear fiasco? Either way, it was a terrible decision to try to draw a link between these events.

image courtesy of flickr user, jolieodell

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

J.P. Morgan's Jamie Dimon: Sounding a False Note

J.P. Morgan's Jamie Dimon: Sounding a False Note

J.P. Morgan's Jamie Dimon: Sounding a False Note

Snafu: Two of the institution's predecessor banks accepted 13,000 slaves as collateral prior to the Civil War.

The apology: In a 2005 letter signed by J.P. Morgan's then-COO Jamie Dimon and CEO William Harrison Jr., the execs said, "The slavery era was a tragic time in US history and in our company's history" and the bank apologizes for contributing to "a brutal and unjust institution."

Rating: One star. The fact that this is a lousy apology isn't really the bank's fault. One hallmark of the so-called "categorical apology"—the real deal, I'm sorry, it'll never happen again, apology—is that you can't apologize for something you didn't do. Even parents can't apologize for young children who break something—although parents can certainly apologize for being inattentive after Junior bashes his way through a friend's china. Because there's no one alive at J.P. Morgan who had anything to do with accepting slaves as collateral, the bank is unable to apologize adequately. But the bank's pledge of $5 million for college scholarships for African-American students from Louisiana probably was a help.

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein: What NOT To Do

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein: What NOT To Do

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein: What NOT To Do

The snafu: Contributing to one of the worst financial crises in modern history.

The apology: After preparing to pay back billions in government bail out funds, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, delivered an apology note to members of the House and Senate committees overseeing financial services in 2009. Goldman, he wrote, was:

"grateful for the government's extraordinary efforts and the taxpayers' patience...We know that we have an explicit contract with our shareholders to be responsible stewards of their capital . . . we regret that we participated in the market euphoria and failed to raise a responsible voice…We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret."

Rating: No stars. This is awful. The first step to a real apology is getting all parties agree on the actual facts. It's not even clear what Blankfein was apologizing for. It sounds like he's apologizing for a low share price or for losing his clients' money—not the sort of thing generally addressed in public. Then again, "participating in market euphoria" doesn't generally get you sued and fined hundreds of millions of dollars by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Photo By Getty

2 Words Every CEO Hates to Say

Groupon CEO Andrew Mason: Too Hip to Apologize?

Groupon CEO Andrew Mason: Too Hip to Apologize?

Groupon CEO Andrew Mason: Too Hip to Apologize?

The Snafu: A superbowl ad with actor Timothy Hutton, which appeared to make fun of the plight of Tibet under Chinese rule.

The apology: "We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes… The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers – it's bad business and it's not where our hearts are."

Rating: Zero stars. For one thing, CEO Andrew Mason didn't apologize. Instead, he explained that the ads actually bring attention to the causes others say the ads parody. Guess what, Andrew? Just because you and your hip ad agency say the ad was an unconventional way of bringing attention to a cause doesn't make it acceptable. Explaining to your customers how they just don't 'get' your ad is a losing strategy. Of course you didn't mean to offend your customers—but you did, so you need a real apology.

Photo Courtesy of Groupon

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