The Fine Art Of The Public Apology

With high-profile apologies from the likes of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, we're in apology overload. Dov Seidman is calling for an apology cease-fire. Seidman is CEO of a company that helps corporations develop values-based cultures and strengthen their ethics and compliance effort. He tells Audie Cornish why he takes issue with recent apologies and what he believes makes a good one.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A few little words, yet so hard to say. I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING MONTAGE)

LANCE ARMSTRONG: I made my decisions. They are my mistake. And I am sitting here today to acknowledge that, and to say I'm sorry for that.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: And I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey.

ROB FORD: Do you want me to say I'm sorry? Do you want me to say I apologize? Do you want me to dance around? I'm not quite sure what you want me to do.

CORNISH: From Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Lance Armstrong. To all you apologizers out there, consider yourself on notice: Dov Seidman is watching you. He's CEO of LRN, a company that advises corporations on values and leadership. And he's teamed up with Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times to take note of all those high-profile apologies. He joins us from our New York bureau.

Dov Seidman, welcome to the program.

DOV SEIDMAN: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So you write: There's been apology inflation in recent history. What are you hearing?

SEIDMAN: Inflation, epidemic - I grew up thinking that apologies are hard, and they felt hard. And today, as a parent of a 6-year-old, I find myself teaching my child a verbal escape route - just say you're sorry. And he's learning to put apologies behind us, and we're seeing that on center stage every day.

Time Warner, right after the Super Bowl, apologized for an outage. Sean Phillips from the Denver Broncos, on Twitter, apologized to his son for losing. But his son came right back and said: Dad, you're still my hero. Gov. Chris Christie, in his press conference, apologized almost 30 times. It's really reaching a level of epidemic.

CORNISH: But there are, obviously, worse epidemics. This is a very polite one. I mean, what's so insidious about an apology crisis?

SEIDMAN: Apologies are so important, and if we're cheapening a precious commodity by making it a theatrical performance that we judge in the moment - apologies are there to not put something behind us, to not get us out of something. They're not designed as get-out-of-jail-free cards. Apologies are about getting us into something. And I'm trying through Apology Watch - in partnership with Andrew Ross Sorkin and DealBook, in The New York Times - is engage the public in a conversation about what an authentic apology is and what is not. And we need to start to measure the authenticity and effectiveness an apology - in its aftermath over time.

CORNISH: So give us an example of a good apology you've seen in recent times from a high-profile figure.

SEIDMAN: I think Reed Hastings really got it right, you know, when Netflix raised prices. Eight hundred thousand-or-so subscribers were irate, and they collectively bolted and left Netflix in 48 hours. And I think the first thing Reed did is, he went on an inward journey. And he then has since said that we discovered that we became more arrogant. And it was about a reclaiming a humility. And it starts...

CORNISH: And this is the CEO saying all this.

SEIDMAN: This is the CEO, in public. The apology started with a complete vulnerable revelation: That price increase was because we could, and not because we should. And they've since been winning Emmys. And I really think that they've been more authentic and more open, more in a two-way dialogue with their subscribers since that existential crisis.

CORNISH: Dov Seidman, one more thing. You know, Americans love a good redemption story. And are we essentially letting people off the hook because we want to encourage their rise later on?

SEIDMAN: You know, I'm not sure why we're seeing so many more apologies, and what's going on. I think that we want people to apologize. I think redemption is a primal human disposition - to be better, to become more perfect. And we really value authenticity. And an authentic apology, if it's followed up with real work, that's a story and a journey that we embrace and will always celebrate.

CORNISH: Dov Seidman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SEIDMAN: It's a real, real pleasure. Thank you for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Dov Seidman, schooling us in the art of the apology. He's CEO of LRN, a company that advises corporations on values and leadership.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S SORRY NOW?")

CONNIE FRANCIS: (Singing) Who's sorry now? Who's sorry now? Whose heart is aching for breaking each vow?

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