'Sorry' Seems To Be The Hardest Word

We've had some mea culpa moments in the past year, but not nearly as many as there might have been. Crisis management expert Leslie Gaines Ross analyzes the psychology behind public apologies.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen. Today we begin the program with a look at apologies, or the absence of apologies. For instance, take Bernard Madoff, who stands accused of an elaborate Ponzi scheme which caused investors and charities worldwide to lose $50 billion. Madoff has yet to issue a public apology, something that recently provided fodder for this joke on "Late Night with David Letterman."

(Soundbite of TV show "Late Night with David Letterman")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Announcer: At this time of forgiveness, Bernie Madoff would like to apologize to all the people he hurt with his elaborate Ponzi scheme. But somehow a mass apology doesn't feel like enough. That's why Bernie would like to give anyone who wants one a personal, hand-inscribed apology.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Announcer: Simply send a check for $59.95 to Bernie...

COHEN: To get a better understanding of why apologies have been few and far between in reality, I spoke with Leslie Gaines-Ross. She's chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick. It's a public-relations firm in New York City. Leslie says there is a strong desire in this country for accountability.

Ds. LESLIE GAINES-ROSS (Chief Reputation Strategist, Weber Shandwick): I think that there's a sense that there's fewer apologies because the financial sector has totally imploded and the American, and the global, public, in fact, really feel that apologies are required or needed in this circumstance. So, I think it feels like there's an absence because there hasn't been any than anyone can basically point to.

COHEN: I'd like to have you evaluate an apology for us. Let's take a listen to one that comes from Richard Fuld. He was the CEO of Lehman Brothers. That's the investment firm that filed for bankruptcy. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of congressional testimony, October 6, 2008)

Mr. RICHARD S. FULD JR. (Chief Executive Officer, Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc.): I feel horrible about what has happened to the company and its effects on so many: my colleagues, my shareholders, my creditors and my clients. As CEO, I was a significant shareholder and my long-term financial interests were completely aligned with those of all the other shareholders. No one had more incentive to see Lehman Brothers succeed. And because I believed so deeply in the company, I never sold the vast majority of my Lehman Brothers stocks and still owned 10 million shares when we filed for bankruptcy.

COHEN: So, that was Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers. Leslie, when you listen there to the tone and the content, how would you rate that apology?

Dr. GAINES-ROSS: (Laughing) I think, on a scale of one to 10, I might give that a six.

COHEN: Ooh.

Dr. GAINES-ROSS: And the reason I say that is that it sounds heartfelt - I certainly watched it on television, and this is a small snippet of it - but a lot of his written statements, spoken statements, had to do with everybody else who was to blame. I - definitely, you can hear the humanity in his voice. He's been affected, but a lot of the taking responsibility didn't happen. He pointed to a lot of other people; he pointed to rumors and speculation; he pointed to lots of other people that, basically, declared him and the company a victim. So, in that sense, it wasn't a full apology. He didn't really share the pain. I feel sorry for him that he lost so much money, but he really needs to share the pain with lots of other people who've lost their entire livelihoods and futures.

COHEN: Let's take a listen to another apology. This one comes from New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in March of this year, following a scandal involving prostitution, and here's part of what he had to say at a press conference back then.

(Soundbite of press conference, March 12, 2008)

Former Governor ELIOT SPITZER (Democrat, New York): I'm deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me. To every New Yorker and to all those who believed in what I tried to stand for, I sincerely apologize.

COHEN: Now, we should note that following this apology, Mr. Spitzer did not take any questions. He read a statement, and then he was gone. Is that a strategy that you would advise to clients?

Dr. GAINES-ROSS: Probably not. But I think every apology has very different circumstances following it, and there was this knowing that his wife was standing there; that added a lot to the apology in terms of feeling sorry for the man. It was a very surgically precise, well-crafted apology. It was almost too perfect in that sense. But under the circumstances, questions and answers, no one wanted to hear that.

COHEN: It seems like we hear a lot of apologies coming out of the world of entertainment; I'm thinking of the likes of Mel Gibson, Don Imus, and you hear a lot from politicians. Do you feel like maybe they are less forthcoming from the world of Wall Street because of the nature of the industry?

Dr. GAINES-ROSS: So many of the leaders in Wall Street are known for their very big egos, and it's interesting because for the financial sector, it's all about trust. So, if anyone should be responsible for delivering an apology, it really should be the financial-sector CEOs. It impacts so many individuals, so many homes, so many countries, regions, charities - it goes on and on. So, that's a sector that really we expect an apology from as difficult as it may be. But it's never enough; I have to add, it's never enough. You can't just come out and say, I'm sorry, and that's it. You really do need to speak about what you're going to do to make sure it never happens again.

COHEN: Leslie Gaines-Ross is the chief reputation strategist at the PR firm Weber Shandwick. Thank you, Leslie.

Dr. GAINES-ROSS: Thank you so much.

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