apologies

The Deflation of “I’m Sorry” in the Economics of Apologies

A recent study suggests the best apology may be one that involves monetary compensation. Experience shows the best apologies are ones that include credible, demonstrable action that shows you really mean ‘I’m sorry.’ [Illustration Credit: Paul Rogers/New York Times]

A recent study suggests the best apology may be one that involves monetary compensation. Experience shows the best apologies are ones that include credible, demonstrable action that shows you really mean ‘I’m sorry.’ [Illustration Credit: Paul Rogers/New York Times]

We may have entered an era when a simple “I’m sorry” has little currency to the recipient of an apology. You might do better offering some form of compensation.

Effective apologies have become a mainstay topic when discussing crisis communications. Crisis counselors, including us, have encouraged sincerity buttressed by demonstrable actions to correct the wrong that required an apology. But a recent study hints that might not be enough to regain or even maintain a level of trust. 

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College who applies economic tools like game theory and experimental design to understand social systems such as apologies, identity, fairness and attitudes about climate change. Ho holds seven degrees from Stanford and MIT in economics, education, political science, math, computer science and electrical engineering. He was recently featured in a  Freakonomics podcast  about apologies. [Photo Credit: Tamar M. Thibodeau / Vassar College]

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College who applies economic tools like game theory and experimental design to understand social systems such as apologies, identity, fairness and attitudes about climate change. Ho holds seven degrees from Stanford and MIT in economics, education, political science, math, computer science and electrical engineering. He was recently featured in a Freakonomics podcast about apologies. [Photo Credit: Tamar M. Thibodeau / Vassar College]

Benjamin Ho, an economics professor at Vassar who studies apologies, teamed up with Uber to test a variety of apologies following a ride gone bad. Apologies that included a commitment to do better in the future often backfired, especially when there was another subpar ride. The apologies that worked best involved monetary compensation.

If Ho was a psychologist, he might have explored why an apology tied to money was a better palliative than an apology tied to a commitment to do better. My dime store interpretation: People have become increasingly cynical. They doubt whether a promise about better behavior in the future will be – or can be – kept. Immediate gratification, like a $5 coupon for a future Uber ride, is more satisfying because it’s more tangible.

Tangibility is the key here. People expect an apology. It’s like “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. But the apology isn’t enough. What counts is the action that follows. The more tangible the action, the better. Or as Ho put it, “Show me the money, basically.”

The Uber example focuses on money, but compensation isn’t the only tangible value apology recipients may desire. If a new water reservoir construction site suffers a major slide, neighbors will be less interested in money than concrete assurances the problem has been fixed. If your bank has been hacked, depositors will want protection from theft.

The phrase “action speaks louder than words” applies. Apologies are something you say. Actions are something you do. Saying you are sorry is important, but it’s best to prove your sincerity through meaningful, relevant and tangible actions. What you say and do after the apology is what counts.

You can’t overlook the economics of apologies. As Ho explained to NPR, “We tested apologies with or without a coupon. We found basically the most effective [Uber] apology, the ones that increased revenues, were just with a $5 coupon.”

Ho’s findings suggest apologies can be transactional. However, as any husband has discovered when bringing home flowers when he forgets an anniversary, the gesture only gets temporary love. You might earn forgiveness, but you don’t build trust with money or flowers.

Trust is the true goal of an apology. Individuals, businesses, nonprofits and public agencies need to realize the point of an apology is to regain trust that is lost or tested – and, when possible, to burnish a reputation. Trust and an enhanced reputation typically aren’t built on cash; they are earned by credible, demonstrable actions, which may include restitution. 

The underlying message of Ho’s study is that ordinary, pro forma apologies aren’t enough now, if they ever were. If you face a crisis, big or small, treat it seriously and put on your work boots to do what’s necessary to earn trust. 

Doing anything less is worse than a waste of time; it is a lost opportunity. And the loss could be permanent.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Two Contrasting Examples of Saying Something Stupid

Retiring radio legend Don Imus tells Anthony Mason of CBS that he regrets his flip, bigoted remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which cost him his job at the time. He also recalled meeting privately with team members and their parents, apologizing to them and promising never to repeat his mistake.

Retiring radio legend Don Imus tells Anthony Mason of CBS that he regrets his flip, bigoted remark about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which cost him his job at the time. He also recalled meeting privately with team members and their parents, apologizing to them and promising never to repeat his mistake.

All of us have said something stupid or insensitive. Most of us don’t do it on purpose or practice it as our key message.  Most of us are not Rick Santorum.

Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” the day after thousands of young people took to the streets to demand an end to gun violence, the former GOP senator and presidential aspirant from Pennsylvania said student survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School should learn CPR instead of protesting. Santorum said the students were pushing for “phony gun laws” that wouldn’t stop school shootings.

Regardless of your point of view, it would be hard to imagine a more tone-deaf or badly timed comment in the wake of massive nation-wide student-led protests. Recognizing the significance of what was happening, the National Rifle Association turned off its propaganda engines for the weekend. President Trump praised the students for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Santorum was part of a panel discussing the student protests, so perhaps he thought it was his job to lob a grenade into the conversation. Whatever his motivation, he sounded like a nincompoop.

Former GOP Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting would be better served by learning CPR instead of protesting.

Former GOP Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooting would be better served by learning CPR instead of protesting.

Coincidentally, Santorum’s comment came the same day as an interview aired on “CBS Sunday Morning” with outspoken radio legend Don Imus. At age 78, Imus is ending his 50-year career on radio and fighting a battle with emphysema.

During the interview, he unhesitatingly answered a question about his flip and bigoted remark in 2007 about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. The remark cost him his job. It also caused him to reflect on such remarks.

"It did change my feeling about making fun of some people who didn't deserve to be made fun of, and didn't have a mechanism to defend themselves," he told CBS’ Anthony Mason. "I'm not full of sh*t. If I've done it, I'll own up to it. And then I have some sorta weird relationship with the audience. I think they saved me most of the time."

Later in the interview, Imus recalled how he met in person with the Rutgers team and their parents and apologized. “I sat and listened for four or five hours. And there was nothing I could say other than, 'I'm sorry,' and promise them that I would never give them a reason in their lifetime to be sorry that they forgave me. And I haven't."

The contrast between Santorum and Imus couldn’t be starker. Imus said something stupid and hateful, paid a price for it, owned it and sought redemption. He said he regretted ever saying what he said, adding “[be]cause I knew better.”

Santorum apparently felt it was his duty to say something stupid and dismissive in defense of his point of view. It seems unlikely Santorum will seek out student survivors of the Parkland school shooting and apologize, or even regret what he said because he knew better.

All of us say stupid things. What matters is what happens after you say something stupid.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

The Almost Apology

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Brian Williams has done soul-searching, but still hasn't found the voice to spit out his apology and explanation.

Williams, the almost beloved former anchor of the NBC Nightly News, will return to the airwaves, but in a lesser role on a cable affiliate of NBC's. It's a demotion, but still a job. All the more reason, Williams should just be plainspoken about why he inflated stories that he covered.

His interview with an obviously sympathetic Matt Lauer on the Today show wasn't crisp, even after more than four months to prepare for it. Williams said his exaggeration of facts or circumstances "came from a bad place' it came from a sloppy choice of words."

Placing yourself in a helicopter involved in a frontline firefight when you weren't at the frontline is something other than a "sloppy choice of words." It is an invented reality.

With some nudging by Lauer, Williams wound up admitting his inflations were "clear ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in." Telling tall tales is what fishermen do, not news anchors.

It would have been far better for Williams to say, "Look, there was no excuse for inflating my role in some stories. I let me ego get in front of my judgment. I was wrong then. I was wrong later when I repeated my untruths. I was definitely wrong for not owning what I did."

Now that is an apology that someone with Williams' style and eloquence could make. It is shame he didn't.

Williams did recognize he will be scrutinized carefully going forward, and he appeared to welcome that scurrility. “And going forward, there are gonna be different rules of the road. I know why people feel the way they do. I get this. I’m responsible for this. I am sorry for what happened here. And I am different as a result. I expect to be held to a different standard.”

Meaning no disrespect to Lester Holt who is expected to replace Williams as the nightly news anchor, Williams is really good as a news broadcaster. Listening to him is like listening to a good friend explain to you what happened during the day. 

Williams' good body of work and his talent entitle him to membership in "The Second Chance Club." But his failure to spit out a solid apology and explanation don't qualify him to be, as he suggested, the club's leading spokesman. Instead, Williams is a symbol of how hard it is to apologize convincingly, even when you have been caught red-handed and concede you are wrong.

Good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as an effective apology. People who need to apologize should keep that in mind.

When an Apology Isn’t Enough

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams is one of the most respected figures in broadcast journalism, but his apology without a full admission may not be enough to retain that credibility.

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams is one of the most respected figures in broadcast journalism, but his apology without a full admission may not be enough to retain that credibility.

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams delivered an on-air apology this week for telling a false war story involving a 2003 incident in Iraq. While the apology was well done, it may not be enough to calm the waters or repair the damage to the credibility of one of broadcast journalism’s most credible figures.

As public apologies go, Williams gave a good one. He owned a mistaken recall of events, directed his apology to the servicemen involved in the false story and expressed an appropriate amount of remorse. But Williams didn’t fully answer the question of why he made up the story in the first place, and why it took so long to admit it — to the world, to himself.

It was the kind of incident that would be hard to forget.

As Williams reported it in 2003, he was in a Chinook helicopter that took enemy fire from a propelled rocket grenade and made an emergency landing, rolling into the desert at the edge of an Iraqi airport. In reality, Williams and his camera crew were in a Chinook helicopter that arrived somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes later. The crew of the stricken helicopter was still assessing damage when Williams arrived. All the helicopters and crew remained in place for two or three days, surrounded by an Army unit for protection. No one reported any enemy fire during that time.

In the excitement of the moment, Williams filed a report on the life-and-death incident, putting himself in harm’s way in the helicopter that was hit. As you would expect, the hot-dogging irritated the men who actually were in harm’s way, but they were too busy to object or just assumed it was another hotshot TV reporter showing off.

Williams has emerged as one of TV’s most respected and trusted TV guys. Because of his willingness to let his broadcast anchor hair down on shows like Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, Williams also has wide appeal. He is the most watched guy on TV news.

His reputation is based on a lot more than the helicopter incident in the Iraq desert, but since 2003 his reputation has included continual reference to the incident. NBC traded on the incident. Tom Brokaw interviewed Williams about the incident. So when Williams repeated his false story last week as part of tribute to a retired soldier, the crew in the 159th Aviation Regiment had had enough.

Sgt. Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the helicopter carrying Williams and crew, went to Stars and Stripes. “No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft,” Miller said.

“It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it,” said Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer of the helicopter that was hit. “It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”

Stars and Stripes exhumed from the NBC online archive the headline of Williams story: “Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams Was Riding In Comes Under Fire.”

In his apology, Williams said that 12 years after the incident, his memory had conflated the helicopter being hit and his later arrival. “Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience … and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”

However, Williams didn’t explain or apologize for why he falsely reported his direct involvement in the first place. Unquestionably, it made for a better story, but it was baldly untrue. He also didn’t explain why he repeated the false story in a piece he wrote in 2007 or variously described the incident. In some versions, he rode in the helicopter trailing the helicopter that was hit.

Print and broadcast journalists have been sanctioned or fired for falsifying stories. Williams may face discipline himself from NBC.

Whether he is or not, his credibility has taken a blow. Social media blew up following his apology, with many dismissing his apology as insufficient and others poking fun at him for taking credit where credit wasn’t due. At #BrianWilliamsMemories, there were online parodies of Williams reporting from the moon, being seated at the Last Supper, hitting the beach at Normandy and chronicling an asteroid storm that wiped out the earthly world of dinosaurs. One wag placed Williams alongside O.J. Simpson on his famous freeway ride.

Funny stuff for us; not so funny for Williams. He was back at the anchor desk, but a big chunk of his reputation was left in shreds on the cutting room floor.

The Complete and Convincing Apology

NBC Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman proved that good people can make mistakes and own those mistakes with a complete and convincing apology.

NBC Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman proved that good people can make mistakes and own those mistakes with a complete and convincing apology.

Many apologies fall short on the sincerity scale. They also are typically incomplete. That wasn't the case for the Ebola-related apology last week by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC's chief medical editor.

Snyderman is regularly featured on NBC's Today and Nightly News shows. She comes across as knowledgeable, articulate and authoritative. Her opinions, as a result, carry some weight with viewers.

The apology followed her coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which ended when freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo contracted the deadly virus. Snyderman and her team returned to the United States and submitted to a voluntary 21-day self-quarantine.

However, within days, Snyderman was spotted walking outside her house. That prompted New Jersey health officials to press for mandatory quarantines.

She apologized, saying, "I stepped outside the boundaries of what I promised to do and what the public expected of me. And for that, I'm sorry."

In addition to apologizing for her misstep, Snyderman expressed regret for the controversy it generated.

"When I came back from Liberia with my team," Snyderman told NBC Today show co-host Matt Lauer, "we had already been taking our temperatures four, five six times a day, and we knew our risks in our heads — but didn't really appreciate, and frankly, we were not sensitive to, how absolutely frightened Americans were."

She acknowledged her actions undermined the credibility of her own reporting on Ebola, as well as the importance of quarantines to protect public health.

To complete her apology, Snyderman expressed regret her actions and the controversy that result became a distraction that diverted public attention from the actual Ebola crisis in West Africa.

The completeness of Snyderman's apology is what sets it apart from too many public apologies. She owned what she did, as well as the repercussions caused by what she did. Many pubic apologies barely own what they did and rarely acknowledge the grief their bad actions caused. 

Snyderman's complete apology showed the strength of character she evinces when she talks. She proved her own words, "Good people can make mistakes." Good people who make complete and convincing apologies usually get a second chance.

Make Your Apology Faultless

People make mistakes, sometimes really big ones. Owning your mistakes is one path to redemption. Compounding your mistakes is the road to perdition. 

GM is a perfect case in point. After failing to notify GM car owners of faulty ignition switches for nearly a decade, which resulted in numerous deaths, GM compounded the problem by sending belated recall notices to the survivors of victims. Its careless follow-through generated more ire, louder congressional hearings and car buyer doubts.

In the newspaper world, there was a standing order for staff to pay special attention to any correction going into print. You would be surprised how often corrections are muffed, enraging people who already were miffed. Correcting a correction is the work of fools. 

Nothing undermines an apology more than an apology followed by another faux pas. The second flub tells people your apology wasn't sincere, or at least sincere enough to bother to double-check your words. What you intended as remorse comes across as indifference or insensitivity.

Sorry State of Saying "I'm Sorry"

"I'm sorry." Simple words with powerful impact. But many businesses seem tongue-tied when trying to utter the phrase.

Bad stuff happens. People can be forgiving — if your are forthright in admitting you screwed up.

Saying you are sorry shouldn't be that hard. An online order gets mixed up. A store clerk is rude. A public water source is contaminated. Own the problem. Fix the problem. Say you are sorry.

The more difficult exercise is actually being sorry. If people think your apology is mere lip service, they won't take it seriously. However, if you back up your apology with appropriate action, they will see your apology as sincere.

Like so many other forms of communication, the apology is best expressed by showing your are sorry. When faced with a botched order, many businesses follow Starbucks' example by giving customers a free drink card. But sometimes that's not enough.