So Sorry! The Art of the Corporate (Non)-Apology

Last Updated Mar 17, 2011 9:38 AM EDT


On March 13, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) CEO Masataka Shimizu apologized in public 29 hours after the first explosion at his company's Fukushima Daiichi plant. In a press release issued the next day, the company expressed its "deep regrets."

That still didn't satisfy a reporter at the company's press conference, who reportedly snapped at an official: "I'm not asking about how you feel."

Carlos Ghosn, Renault's CEO, has also been apologizing this week. In his case, three Renault employees were fired after being accused of selling industrial secrets. An investigation by the state prosecutor showed Renault's case against the employees to be baseless.

A look at the Tepco and Renault apologies shows why corporate apologies so often fall short, and why it may not even be possible for Tepco to apologize appropriately at this time. Nick Smith, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire and author of the book, I was Wrong: The Meaning of Apologies has identified nine elements crucial to a categorical apology.

A categorical apology is the real deal-the apology that is perceived as genuine, salves wounds, and paves the way for both parties to move on. Ideally, in an apology:

1) Everyone must agree on the facts. This is the first problem with the Tepco apology. Before the company apologized, statements about the condition of the reactors were confused and tardy. In addition, As Rachel Maddow noted in a recent MSNBC report, TEPCO 's less-than-stellar history when it comes to nuclear plant safety gave the public reason to doubt it's public apology.

The only thing anyone seemed to agree upon was that there was an earthquake. You can't apologize for something unless all parties know what happened.

In the Renault case, most of the facts are clear. The most salient are simply that the three employees were fired on suspicions of espionage, and were later found innocent. There is still some question as to why Renault went after these three employees in the first place. Renault is claiming it was misled by an informant.

2) The offender must take responsibility for what happened. If Tepco doesn't know or won't say what's going on in the plant, the company can't apologize for it. And obviously, they also can't apologize for an earthquake. This is why expressions such as "I'm sorry your grandmother passed away" are expressions of sympathy, not apologies. Just using the word "sorry" or "regret" does not an apology make.

3) The apologizer must say the actions that were taken were wrong. In the Renault case, it was wrong to fire innocent people. In the Tepco case, we still don't know exactly what the actions were.

4) The offender must use a phrase such as "I was wrong." Ghosn did this; so far, Tepco officials don't appear to have done so. This is different from "I am sorry that you feel that way," which is, again, an expression of sympathy, not an apology.

5) Expression of regret. A sincere expression of regret not only recognizes that an action was wrong, but that if the offender had it to do over again, they choose differently. This is why Tepco's regrets don't cut it-Tepco is sympathizing with the victims, rather than pledging to do something differently in the future.

6) If the victim wants an apology to be made in public, or wants it to be written, the offender has to oblige (within reason). Shimizu apologized in public; Ghosn apologized on national television and offered to meet with the three ex-employees.

7) The offender has to offer reparations. This is problematic in both cases. Repairing someone's health or reputation is nearly impossible. Ghosn has offered monetary compensation to the three ex-Renault employees, and has said he hopes they return to Renault. He and the other executives involved in firing the alleged spies will forgo their 2010 bonuses and this year's stock-option awards.

8. You can only apologize for things you are responsible for. This is a big problem with corporate and political apologies, and it's even worse in Tepco's case, where the failures at the nuclear plant were precipitated by an historic earthquake. With corporate apologies, the CEO often apologizes, on the theory that the buck stops there. In Renault's case, Ghosn was actually involved in the dismissal of the employees, so it's appropriate for him to apologize.

9) The apology has to be genuine. Of course, liars apologize just like everyone else. In the case of a corporate apology, the company generally says what it will do to keep the problems from happening again. Renault, in support of its claim that it was duped, says it is re-examining its security procedures.

Given the unique nature of its situation, is there anything Tepco can do to apologize appropriately?

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Image courtesy flickr user Dave Keeshan
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.