MT Masterclass: Apologies

Sometimes, 'sorry' seems to be the hardest word...

What are they? Businesses used not to have to apologise all that much. Customers were more deferential in the past and they didn't know their rights. And there was no global 24-hour media or internet filled with bloggers and tweeters to terrorise companies. But times have changed. Now, smart bosses need to know how to be able to stand up straight, look the camera or interviewer in the eye and say sorry for things that have gone wrong - even if they are not really responsible for them. Running a company means having to say sorry, quite frequently.

Where did they come from? Large-scale apologies from companies were once rare. The most that many of us were used to getting was the dirge that began: 'British Rail regrets to announce the non-running of the 7.53 service... ' But through exposure and practice, some companies have got better at it. In 2007, Mattel boss Bob Eckert delivered an exemplary apology for his company's recall of faulty toys, rushing to CNN's TV studios to make his point: 'I'm disappointed, I'm upset, but I can assure your viewers that we are doing everything we can about the situation,' he said.

Where are they going? The dismal sight of BP chief executive Tony Hayward first apparently belittling the recent Gulf of Mexico disaster, then blaming other parties for errors, before finally learning to offer an unconditional apology himself should serve as a warning to any other company boss on how not to do it. Perhaps the Pru bosses' mea culpa will set a better example. But we are still some way away from that happy scenario when business leaders learn that when something goes wrong, the first thing to do is put your hands up, apologise for the aggro caused and commit to doing something effective about it.

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