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Business culture

The art of the apology

Musings on intercultural management

Aug 04, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Apologies are a thorny topic for business executives and private individuals alike. How should a company or an organization issue an apology? On social media, in a press conference, or in front of a TV camera?

Most organisations nowadays have standard operating procedures for corporate apologies. They are usually advised by a host of PR and legal consultants, and still, an apology can go dramatically wrong, especially in an intercultural context. In my previous job, I had to deal with several incidents that led to intercultural crisis communication, including public apologies. I experienced the devastating effect of a bad apology and the healing power of a good one. 

In the first case, the bad apology eventually drove the company out of a lucrative market. It involved a global firm in the construction industry and a product failure that caused a deadly accident. The country manager was advised by his European head office not to issue any public apology as this could be construed as an admission of liability, possibly exposing the company to litigation risks.

As the country manager gave a first interview, he showed up unprepared, unshaven and not appropriately dressed for the situation and the local business customs. His body language was not attuned to the local culture. The poor man was virtually eaten up by the media and public opinion, and he resigned shortly afterwards. A detailed investigation showed that the company was not responsible nor liable for the accident, but this didn’t help; they had to sell their business to their competitor and leave the market.

A few years later, I had to advise a train company in their crisis communication right after an accident that involved a travel group from an East Asian country. Unfortunately, one person was killed and dozens more had been severely injured. The train company was bombarded with requests from European-based correspondents of that country, so I suggested holding a press conference for international media.

It was summer with high temperatures, and the chairman of the board and the CEO wanted to show up to the first press conference in short sleeves, no tie and no jacket. I told them that this was no-go and that the media from that country would concentrate not only on the facts but also on their behaviour, body language and emotional signals of sympathy. After a heated argument, I had to virtually threaten the chairman that I would pull out if he did not follow my advice. He eventually trusted me, and we even went shopping for a tie and a shirt right before the press conference started.

The media conference began with emotional apologies by the chairman and the CEO. They used the right words and the right body language and were dressed appropriately. They expressed their feelings of sympathy and concern for the casualties and their families, and then offered all help possible and promised transparent information on the cause of the accident as well as measures to be taken, explaining in detail how the public investigator would examine the accident. The executives sent the right signals in a carefully orchestrated manner but did not take responsibility for the cause of the accident. “This, they explained, is the object of public investigation”.

In that press conference and all following communications with the media and the public, the train company was able to protect its reputation and get out of the crisis without any major damage to its business. The public investigator eventually found out the cause of the accident: the train driver was driving at high speed, which resulted in the company having to take responsibility for the cause of the accident, what they immediately did.

The two cases show us three important things: first, in a crisis evolving within an intercultural context, you, as the locus of the crisis, need to play according to the rules of the audience. That is, you need to send the right signals, and from the viewpoint of the receiver, not the sender. Second, behavioural aspects like body language and emotionality are as important as facts, and in some cultural settings, even more important. Third, you need to understand the function of an effective apology: it addresses the receiver’s feelings—it does not prove a point, and effective apologies are a matter of cultural sensitivity.

The art of the apology

Roger Zbinden is head of Swiss Business Hub South Korea. The Swiss Business Hub South Korea is the Seoul-based representative of the official international trade and investment promotion agency Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE). 

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