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“i’m sorry.” truth? or just good pr?

October 14, 2009

in communication

as i posted earlier, i’ve been on jury duty for a first-degree murder trial. i’m still processing the case and our deliberations, as well as the way it played out in the media. i hope to write about my experience in the future, but i won’t until i’m certain i’m not trivializing how a sequence of events ended two men’s lives—one permanently, one with a prison sentence.

while replaying this jury experience i’ve been reading about toyota president akio toyoda’s apology. both got me thinking about apologies and what makes them feel credible. without a ouija board, crystal ball, or some other divining tool, it’s impossible for any of us to truly know what lies behind an apology. instead, as the judge instructed me and my fellow jury members to do, we use our life experiences and understanding of human behavior to evaluate them.

during the defendant’s testimony, i don’t recall ever hearing the words “i’m sorry.” granted, you hear so much testimony, it’s quite possible he did. fact is, it didn’t matter whether or not he actually uttered those words. from his body language, his testimony, his admission of guilt, and yes, his breaking down on the stand, 12 individuals independently felt his regret for and horror of his actions and where they’ve landed him. before you accuse me of being a liberal softy, let me tell you we found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter—a lesser charge, but one that made sense given all of the testimony, and will deliver a jail sentence of anywhere from 13 to more than 20 years.

i'm sorry graffitiin the case of toyoda, he’s apologized—exhaustively—to the affected family, the california economy, the japanese people, car lovers, and more. in doing this, he’s met sound crisis management guidelines by getting in front of the situation and owning up to where he failed and whom he failed. and he’s adhered to japanese cultural standards by expressing shame for these failings. he’s also issued toyota’s biggest recall, making amends for this latest design flaw.

so why do i continue to think the defendant’s “i’m sorry” is truth and toyoda’s is just good pr?

certainly, a large part is because this is not toyota’s first recall, nor the first time bad publicity spurred them into action. there’s also the fact that knowledge of this defect first emerged in 2007. but primarily, i think it’s that i was present to hear the defendant speak and could judge the veracity of his testimony and his remorse for myself. and as a juror, i helped determine that the punishment did indeed fit the crime.

i’m mulling it over and poking at my argument. picking the scab, if you will. knowing that many of us handle aspects of the employee experience and face crises and the need to manage messages almost daily—in an increasingly cynical world, no less—what say you:

  • when is an apology truth? and when is it just good pr?
  • if you can’t tell the difference between the two, does knowing which is which really matter?
  • and considering all of the above, how do you construct a credible apology?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Autom Tagsa October 14, 2009 at 3:12 pm

perhaps what also merits closer examination—as it applies specifically to employee and corporate communications—involves the timeliness of response, tone and diction used in the message.

i think it's quite fair that this post offers reflection on whether or not people can clearly tell (let alone appreciate) the sincerity of a crafted message (in the form of an apology in this case). i do feel there are tangible opportunities for MarCom-ers to improve upon what once was viewed as “yep. well-crafted.” and turn it into “seriously folks, we get it and we're sorry (or happy or concerned or whatever)” *because* guess what, we were actually listening to you and are actually responding with your concerns in mind.

as explorers and practitioners of social media, we have the advantage of being keenly aware of certain behavioural patterns cultivated by the social online environment. in the process of studying and filtering through such patterns, we are given opportunites to identify best practices which will both challenge, enhance (if not transform) the quality and accuracy of how we communicate.

did i digress? oh well, i'm not sorry but i do dig this post – a

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fran October 15, 2009 at 12:05 pm

autom, love the idea of moving off of form (yep, well crafted) to function, or connection, as you say it. ‘cuz you have to believe that with connection comes results, right?

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