Back and Worse Than Ever

May 3, 2008
Why Bother to Get Things Right in the First Place, When You Can Just Apologize for the Screw-Ups and Move On?
By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

What goes around comes around, they say. Actually it might be more a case of it never really going away. It just pops back into public view from time to time.

Eight years ago I wrote a column for a sibling Putman brand about a moment in time when it seemed like everyone in the public eye was really into apologizing for bad behavior.

I remembered it because of a quite recent conversation I had about public events regarding airlines, banks and politicians that showcased corporate and personal incompetence.

Here’s a part of that column, “Mea Culpa, Su Culpa.” Tell what you think has changed.

“I’m sorry. It’s important to me that you believe that. I am truly sorry for any inconvenience caused by my insensitivity, inappropriate subject matter or improper phrase-turning in this column over the years.

“Why am I apologizing? Am I leaving? No, I sort of like it here. Did I receive a barrage of outraged criticism about something I wrote? No, most of you seem mildly amused or benignly tolerant of my efforts.

“I’m apologizing because it’s the hip thing to do. Apologizing is in—really in—these days. Why bother to get things right in the first place, when you can just apologize for the screw-ups and move on?

“First, there was United Airlines. They sent letters to frequent customers and trotted out their executives on a blitz of TV ads to say how very sorry they were that so many of their flights were late or outright canceled this summer, stranding record numbers of travelers.

“Then there was my gigantic local phone company. They’ve gone out of their way to tell us how sorry they are that it takes forever plus about 12 hours to have a phone installed or fixed. They’re also terribly sorry they’ve been heavily advertising DSL service, knowing full well that it was unavailable to a large segment of their customer base.

“I even got an apology in the mail from my bank. Its president just decided to write to say, in essence, he was sorry for not staying in touch more.

“Big companies apparently have moved on from the days when corporate leaders perfected the art of avoiding public and media scrutiny, never admitting wrongdoing, and never, my Lord, never apologizing.

“Not to get away from the subject at hand, but one of the most intensive and well-taught, job-related courses I ever attended was three days of media training to learn how to brilliantly answer questions that were never actually posed. How to delay, delay, delay giving out information was a carefully honed curriculum component. It was a little scary to see how good you could get at it.

“These days, companies lap up public relations advice about how to have their chief executives stare doe-eyed into the camera, make somber human contact with every single one of us, and apologize deeply. They’re convinced that we’ll be less outraged at their incompetence if we get to see them grovel some. Mind you, they rarely admit guilt or assume responsibility. No, they’re just really sorry.

“This makes me pretty mad when I think about the control professionals who read this magazine. I don’t think any of you see the apology as a helpful job skill.

“You know better than anyone there’s no substitute for solid planning, abundant skills training, and dependable execution. And equally important, you know there has to be a deeply embedded sense of responsibility for seeing to it that things really do go right all the time.

“Let’s hope these industries start paying some attention to the way it works in [machine] control. If they don’t, someday they’ll really be sorry.”

So, does this rant stand the test of time? It seems that the names change, but the story just seems to unfold with similar chapters.

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