Monday, March 15, 2010

“I AM SORRY.” A PR UPSIDE?

A definite yes! I always thought it was an American tradition to admit a mistake. “I am sorry…I made a mistake” gets high marks in my book…and might even get you through the debacle, if not carelessly used. I’d venture to say that most Americans would also give the offender a pass for a sincere apology.

But when you probe deeper, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Saying “I’m sorry” in business, if a legal matter is at stake, can mean the loss of a suit. Thus lawyers may advise: say nothing. A doctor or a hospital admitting medical error can mean a malpractice suit.

So, are things changing? Are there benefits for both parties when a genuine apology is offered — and accepted?

According to The New York Times, Gerald Levin, the former Time Warner chief, “dropped jaws” by taking the blame for putting together the “the worst deal of the century,” the merger of Time Warner and America Online, despite the fact that it happened ten years ago, in 2000. The same article quoted Sandy Weill, who built the Citigroup empire, saying that he was “’sad’ about the state of Citi and had made some mistakes.”

Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, has found that that heads of Fortune 500 companies almost never apologize for poor performance. The one exception, the article said, was Andy Grove, former chief of Intel. That may be one of the reasons why we remember his name.

It may be big egos or just stiff upper lips, but it is not a good tradition, in my opinion. However, it is reassuring to know that an increasing number of medical centers, according to an earlier New York Times piece, are taking a different tack and “encouraging doctors to apologize to patients for mistakes and to explain what went wrong.”

“Doctors say that such accountability can help patients feel more cared for and empowered, as well as enhance the reputation of the doctor and the medical center as honest brokers,” writes reporter Natasha Singer. I would say the analogous situation would be true on the corporate front. Surprisingly, several medical centers, according to the Times, “have reported that the approach has reduced malpractice suits.” Amen.

Technorati Tags: The New York Times, Gerald Levin, Time Warner,America Online, Sandy Weill, Citigroup, Sydney Finkelstein, Tuck School of Business, communications, public relations, Makovsky

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