January 15, 2010

Apology PR: Asia’s latest export to the world?

When I moved from North America to North Asia in 2002, South Korea was roiled by the horrible death of two young school girls who were run over by a U.S. military vehicle (gruesome pictures of which were posted online). Afterward there were mass anti-U.S. demonstrations around the American Embassy in Seoul, located right next door to the Edelman office where I then worked. Feelings against America were running so high, I made a point of wearing my Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jersey when I went to the office, wading through what at times was an angry mob.

One reason why the anti-American passion was running so high? What some felt was the slow speed of the apology for the deaths from President Bush, pouring fuel on the cultural fire in a part of the world where a timely and appropriate apology is de rigeur.

Compared to the West — and especially to America, where I lived for several years — one of the first things I noticed living in Asia is how rapidly and frequently apologies are offered across a wide range of circumstances. At first, this seemed too quaint and maybe excessively ‘weak.’ Why apologize for something that’s not proven to be your fault? That was my attitude then. But over time, I came to believe that the generous Asian approach to apology ensures more harmonious and friendly relationships between people, contributing to civility in society and helping prevent angry public outbursts that one sees more often in Western societies.

Indeed, I increasingly found my own culture’s approach to apology callous and calculating; a tactic of last resort if there’s no other way out of a situation. I had reflected on this issue before, because in my role as a PR consultant to clients experiencing crisis situations, I have repeatedly fought battles with lawyers who always seem to insist that there should never be an apology if a company does something wrong, lest there be legal liability as a result.

All too often, the lawyers win the ‘apology war’, but it’s a pity because simply saying that harm has occurred and showing that you feel bad or sad about what’s happened evidences human empathy and does not constitute an admission of guilt. The Asians certainly appreciate that, and because the lawyers do not reign so supreme in their societies, PR people don’t need to ‘induce’ public apologies that are already a natural cultural response.

Thus, for example, the reflexive bowing at Japanese news conferences if ‘mistakes have been made,’ which even if sometimes reluctant and slow to happen — often a problem with foreign companies in Japan such as Schindler — is such a humble admission that public acceptance usually follows and the media is likely to move on to something else. Indeed, the media ‘pile on’ that happens to organizations or people who have erred often seems like society’s way of extracting an expected apology.

Does that thinking sound familiar? It should, because during recent years — and I have noticed this change since I returned to North America — the spectacle of public apology has become far more frequent in Western countries. There certainly have been many media stories about this tendency lately and the whole area of ‘apology communications’ has become very trendy in PR circles. In an age when so many people fashion themselves as ‘PR experts,’ the apology as the fast way to ‘get the media off your back’ if something bad has happened is now a commonplace theme.

Look at what happened to Tiger Woods when his apology was slow and selective, rather than speedy and seemingly sincere.

On both sides of the Pacific these days, if you are slow to apologize, then people are less likely to trust the sincerity of the apology when it finally does come. Just ask Mark McGwire or any of the executives bowing at Japanese news conferences who are especially sorry that they got caught doing something wrong (which in many cases they could have sincerely admitted much earlier had they been proactively transparent…).

Early in my PR career, I learned about the ‘CAP formula’ for crisis communications. Show Compassion, take Action, provide Perspective. Nowadays, in Asia and worldwide, I think it has really become the CAAP formula: Compassion, Apology, Action, and Perspective. There are even websites now that specialize in apology techniques.

For so many years, there has been this cultural condescension towards Asia; this sense that Western communications are always more advanced and thus American and European PR methods have been widely imported and adapted. In the area of apology communications, the reverse is true and I think the export of Asian apology sensibility is likely a change for the better.

[If you are interested in the apology element of professional communications, check out this excellent article by my former Hill & Knowlton colleague Boyd Neil. If you can read Korean, one of the top Asian thought leaders in this space with significant material online is the brilliant Hoh Kim, my successor at Edelman Korea who is now doing his PhD thesis in this area at KAIST].

  1. Bob,

    This is a great contribution to the discussion of the place of corporate apologies when there has been harm.

    I agree with your comment “On both sides of the Pacific these days, if you are slow to apologize, then people are less likely to trust the sincerity of the apology when it finally does come.” Some lawyers are starting to get. Others pay lip service to it but still insist on putting potential liability concerns ahead of the apology. The number who are actually willing to join PR people in urging an apology from a CEO are few and far between.

    Oh yeah . . . and thanks for the kind words about my piece on the subject.

  2. Bob:

    Thanks for the great insight and introducing me here. The different attitude towards apology between the East and the West is a big question for me, and I’ve been thinking about this issue for some time as I plan to publish a book on apology this year.

    So far, here’s my two cents:

    1. If we think about the cross-country level, I guess the West is far more open than East, such as after World War II, with Willy Brandt’s apology in Poland back in 1970, Pope John Paul’s apology in 2000… If there’s ‘world chronology of apology’, I guess there are far more apologies from Western countries than Eastern countries.

    2. If Asia is more open on apology than the West, then, probably it’s from a linguistic context. For example, in English if a person says “I’m sorry” then, there is a legal implication, but, in Korean, not necessarily.

    3. Also, when it comes to apology between senior (age, position, etc.) and junior, probably, Asians would apologize more often than Westerners (even when they don’t need to apologize from a Western perspective).

    4. Regarding the apology ‘bowing’ in Japanese news conferences, that’s expected in Japan, but not of Japanese companies overseas.

    5. In a sense, Christian culture might have more emphasis on the importance of apology and admitting mistakes, such as confession in front of a priest…but in Asia, I can’t think of easily similar examples from traditional religion.

    My point is when we compare “apology culture,” I guess there would be interesting differences when it comes to intra-country level (apology towards “their people”) and cross-country level (apology towards “other people”), hierarchical level and horizontal level (apology between colleagues and friends).

    To me if there’s “apology 2.0” the best example has been shown by Obama. When he called a journalist “sweetie,” when he made a mistake about Nancy Reagan at his first press conference after the election, when he made “stupid” comment on a policeman, he accepted his mistakes very fast, and publicly apologize. What’s differentiating him from other politicians is he doesn’t use “Classic Washington linguistic construct” which is “mistakes were made” like Ronald Reagan mentioned at the Iran-Contra…

  3. An interesting subject to be sure.

    We have had some major public apologies in Canada recently. The Prime Minister’s apology to aboriginal Canadians about the aboriginal schools issue is probably the best example.


    It can easily be argued that it was decades too late and that governments of both the Liberal and Conservatives ignored the issue for too long, hoping it would fade away as the population involved aged. But such wounds are not easily forgotten. Apology, even at this late date, had a profound effect, more than any financial settlement, in bridging the gap between the government and the native population.

    The official apology to Japanese Canadians for internment during WWII was similarly late (1988), but better late than never.

    Ontario’s “Apology Act” seeks to separate an apology from a legal admission of guilt, opening up the way for more apologies. I hope to see something similar in the Federal Parliament at some point.

    Thanks Bob, and those whose works you quoted for filling in the blanks, I was aware of the “apology culture” at a high level, but you’ve provided some interesting insight.