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Harvard Review Analyzes Apology Value

Posted April. 25, 2006 05:18,   


On August 17, 1998, Bill Clinton, then-U.S. president, stood before the camera with a sad look. He confessed to a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and said, “I have misled the U.S. public including my wife. And I deeply regret it.”

In its April issue, the Harvard Business Review (HBR), an international academic journal on management, published a paper that analyzed cases of successful or unsuccessful public apologies made by leaders in the political and economic circles.

HBR regarded Clinton’s apology successful. His excuse played a significant role in quieting down the public criticism on his sex scandal even though some people doubted if it was true. HBR said Clinton, through his apology, effectively delivered his message to restore the damaged relationship between him and his wife, and the public.

HBR also considered the 1982 excuse of John Burke, the then president of Johnson and Johnson, the most successful. At that time, a person died after taking his company’s Tylenol (a pain reliever) into which somebody had inserted poison. Mr. Burke immediately apologized, accepted a full responsibility and recalled all the Tylenol from the U.S. market. His word of apology cost an extra $100 million. But it saved Johnson and Johnson from the critical moment.

Meanwhile, there are unsuccessful cases. Back in 1989, when Exxon (now known as ExxonMobil) accidentally leaked a huge amount of oil into the Alaskan sea, the company’s president avoided meeting the press for 6 days. Also, he was not consistent in his apology. Belatedly, he made a full apology to the public after realizing the issue became serious. But it was too late. Until today, Exxon has not recovered from its tarnished image of an environment-unfriendly company.

HBR discovered that leaders of corporations or nations are extremely reluctant to make an excuse. That is because they fear the burden they might take and because they have less room for maneuver in the organizations they are in after an apology.

According to HBR, leaders need not make a word of excuse for small matters. A sincere apology, however, has such a big impact that it could even touch the heart of their victims. For example, in a survey to victims of medical accidents, 37% of the respondents said they would not have filed a lawsuit if the hospital had made a full explanation and regretted what had happened.

President George W. Bush is one of the persons HBR got interested in. Mr. Bush has never made an appropriate excuse even though his policies on the Iraq war have proved to have many flaws. Reportedly, he and his aides refuse to apologize because they believe everything is going to be ok as time passes. HBR advised, however, that apologizing would be much more helpful after making a mistake.

Jong sik Kong kong@donga.com