Tuesday, November 1, 2022

How to Say I'm Sorry.

My last assignment at Ogilvy was by far the toughest of the aggregate of my twelve years there.

Not only was I partnering with the New York CEO and the WW CEO Emeritus (the pressure was on) but the client was, when all is said and done, a defense contractor, with a huge consumer business as the world's largest producer of civilian aircraft.

If you grew up as I did during the darkest and bloodiest days of Vietnam, you'd have learned that the military-industrial complex is essentially unable or unwilling to tell the truth. They certainly don't know how to say, "I'm sorry."

In this case, the client I was working for built an unsafe plane. Two planes crashed, killing over 300 people. The client blamed the pilots of the two-crashed planes, instead of taking responsibility themselves.

As a creative person, I had to deal with all this.

So I had to think through the universal truths of apologies. How to apologize. How to make it "stick." What should make up an effective and truthful apology?

So, I became a student of apologies.

Not Socrates' 'Apologia.' 

More visceral than that. 

As in, my wife was out of town, I threw a ball to the dog and I broke an heirloom vase that was her deceased grandmother's.

In other words, I did something that couldn't be undone. I destroyed a loved one. Because of my dumbness.

In the wake of the horror that is whatever-his-name-is and the days of non-response from his sponsor, adidas, I thought it made sense to share what I learned from my studies.

I'm not sure this is the answer to every mistake done by a person or a brand, but I'm sure it's better than doing nothing. I'm sure it's better than forming a strategy. And I'm sure it's better than hoping the whole thing will just subside.


1. Don't wait. 
The minute you make a mistake, you tell the world what you did. "I broke the vase." "We built a defective plane." "I leveraged 6000 years of anti-semitism to promote myself."

2. Act to make good.
Fix as best you can what you've fouled up. In the case of the vase, "I found something that looks like it on ebay. It should be here Friday." "We are immediately grounding all such planes. We have hired a restitution expert to compensate the affected families. We are instituting new rules so this never happens again." "I am making an active effort to learn about history, Jewish history, the holocaust, African-American history, calumnies of the past and their consequences. And the historic relationship between Jews and African-Americans. And so on." 

3. Show that you mean it. 
Don't just say, do. Never play ball in the house again. Publish a day-by-day account of what you're doing to fix the processes and behaviors that led to the defective planes. Fire, without 'golden parachutes' those who chose expediency and profit over human-life. Publicly share what you learned, discuss with others. All in plain English. Not jargon and lawyer-speak.


I know there are professionals who make a good living as "crisis-recovery managers" and spin-doctors.

That's fine. It's certainly not a job I'd want. I'm fully booked apologizing to loved ones.

And I'm sure they have 97-page guides to recovering from gaffes, disasters and plain-old hate-speech.

All arrogance aside, I wonder how much better their guides are than mine.

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