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How To Apologize Effectively

Mere hours after the tragic plane crash at San Francisco airport, executives of Asiana Airlines hosted a press conference to issue a formal apology for the accident. As is customary, CEO Yoon Young-doo and Asiana board members expressed their regret with deep bows of contrition in front of media and dignitaries. The Washington Post ran an insightful column about the bows as a symbol of the paternalistic corporate culture of South Korea and its possible link to the country’s business success.

For PR pros, however, the Asiana response also offers some reminders of the power of a public apology. And like Akio Toyoda’s humility in the wake of the product acceleration failures that precipitated a worldwide brand crisis for Toyota in 2010, it highlights a vivid contrast in cultures.

The typical public apology from an Asian executive often seems more sincere than those of his U.S. counterparts. Bowing will do that, but that’s not the only thing. Another reason is that our litigious society mitigates against any acceptance of responsibility, lest it be construed as liability. When the PR strategy and the legal strategy are in conflict, legal often triumphs, much to the chagrin of many communications professionals.

But there are other factors at work here. Intercultural experts point out that for Americans, an apology is an admission of error and the chief apologizer is confessing to weakness. In many Asian cultures, by contrast, a mea culpa is seen as a simple expression of regret and a desire to repair the relationship and/or move on.

The American view of the Asiana apology, therefore, may be attributing more authenticity and depth of feeling to it than it deserves. But the sight of the line of top executives bent over in a bow, coupled with language expressing “utmost sympathy and regret,” and “apologizing most deeply” is a heck of a good start to restoring Asiana’s reputation. In any language, an effective apology should offer some essential attributes.

Make it sincere

Whether a public mea culpa or a private apology, the expression must seem true. A false apology, or one made under duress, only does more damage.

Take responsibility

Yes, it’s tough or even impossible to accept the blame in our lawsuit-crazed culture, but owning the situation is the only way to move past the harm done. That’s why the lame, “We’re sorry if anyone was offended” statement is completely ineffectual.

Don’t explain or justify

While it’s tempting to put context around the offense, it almost always undermines the sincerity of the regret. Explaining can also raise more questions than it answers. In a catastrophic situation like the Asiana crash, where the facts or causes aren’t yet determined, it’s best to apologize quickly and pledge to get to the bottom of the situation.

Fix the problem

This is where many companies fall short. The most effective apologies are those that seek to prevent the issue from recurring, make reparations, or commit to positive change. Here, there must be teeth in the promise, or the entire apology falls apart.

And if all else fails, there’s always that deep bow.

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