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Netflix and the Lost Art of Apology

September 22, 2011


“A stiff apology is a second insult,” G.K. Chesterton


The Netflix mess has brought the matter of apology front and center. 

While it’s true that CEO apologies are still rare, the overwhelming consensus is that this one was awful. In fact, most comments I’ve read believe that the infamous Netflix apology letter added insult to injury.  By the time the letter from CEO Reed Hastings  arrived in customer mailboxes, the company had lost over a million customers angry over the recent 60% rate hike.

Business leaders still don’t understand that customer satisfaction alone is not enough. The fundamentals of respect, honesty and trust matter more.  First and foremost, customer decisions and reactions are emotional.

Apologies that don’t address the complexity of human feelings are useless – and sometimes damaging.  Apologies perceived as insincere can erode any remaining potential for the rebuilding of trust.

How Do You Say I’m Sorry To 24 Million Customers?

The truth is that the Netflix apology letter was really a rebranding announcement.  Apart from what critics feel is either a horrendous business decision or a highly manipulative maneuver, the letter has created a buzz around the question of apology in the age of social media.

The annals of weak and disingenuous corporate apologies are growing.  Customers find CEO apologies scripted by lawyers and public relations dishonest and offensive. The shoddy attempts at “reputation repair” add to the understandable cynicism that is corroding the public’s institutional trust. 

Corporations and public figures fear litigation and political backlash, so they verbally dance around the edges of their mistakes and failures.  These apologetic “mashups” further erode public confidence in leadership.  And the negative reaction to Netflix’s mangled apology will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the future of similar admissions.

What’s missed by most corporate leaders and public figures is the potential for opportunities to heal and restore broken faith and relationships with sincere communication in the form of apology. According to Harvard Business Review author Holly Weeks, “When an offense has torn the fabric of a relationship, an apology is a stage in its repair. An effective apology can reassure people that the transgression is understood and not likely to be repeated.”

The likelihood of an apology is tied to the culture of the corporation, government body, state or country of origin. While many factors impact the cultural awareness and acceptance of apologies and admissions of wrong-doing (e.g. laws) the aversion to apology more common in the U.S. is not universal. 

Arthur Rosen, Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of California said, “When faced with a change that they have seriously wronged another person, Americans typically deny or challenge the claim or may try to explain or justify their actions.” For example, the Japanese system requires that civil and criminal defendants give their victims or society a personal apology.   

Is There a Recipe for the Perfect Apology?

Whether it is an institutional or individual apology, certain rules apply. Context and circumstances do matter and have to be factored into how we apologize. 

  • Timing.  You know the old saying, “timing is everything?” Well, that is particularly true in the stages of apology.  A too-late apology can be completely ineffective and anger the offended party even more.  In today’s super-fast world of social media, public apologies must be carefully timed to “get out in front” of the inevitable public fallout.  On a public and personal level, delayed apologies can seem callous, defensive and controlling.
  • Assumptions.  Nothing’s worse than being on the other end of an apology that assumes what you think and how you feel.  This is delicate because while the apology needs to address the possible impact of the wrong doing, it must not further offend. I don’t want BP telling me I feel fear when in fact, I feel anger. The same is true with personal apologies.
  • Apologies are not about you.  Apologies are about those offended. Get off of the stage. Focus on others.   Too many people use apologies to explain themselves or their company’s actions.  Combining the apology with the business announcement was one of the chief criticisms of the Netflix apology letter. 
  • Do it in Person.  Obviously corporate and public apologies can’t take place in person – but the method matters.  If you have an opportunity to deliver a personal apology in person and instead you choose to do it by phone or email – expect that your actions may be seen as cowardly or lazy.
  • Take Full Responsibility. Too many apologies equivocate, defend and even blame. This is the death knell for acceptance, let alone forgiveness.
  • Acknowledge the Hurt and the Damage Done.  This is very hard for most of us to do.  It requires that we face what others are feeling – and the impact of our offense.  This is where most people jump in and try to “fix” the emotions others are feeling.  To ease our emotional discomfort, we try to manage what others are feeling, which can escalate the damage.
  • Show Remorse – This is the part where you tell them how you feel. If it isn’t real – it won’t be received.
  • Ask for Forgiveness. A lot of apologies omit this crucial step. Too scary. It can also come across as an unreasonable expectation given the emotional stakes.  Just because you have contritely asked for forgiveness, don’t expect it – at least in the moment.  Forgiveness takes time and in some situations, is not possible.
  • Provide Assurances, Try to Compensate.  It is only by demonstrating an authentic attempt to be honest and take responsibility that we can expect those we’ve offended to consider trusting us again in the future.  If the circumstances call for or allow it, we should also try to offer some form of restitution.  In the case of Netflix, the only thing I could see they were offering was the continuation of the red envelope!

 Trust is more fragile than ever. Yet, everything that is important in society and relationships depends on it.  A study done at Wharton School of Business defined trust as the “Willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations about another’s behavior.”

When corporations, governments and individuals lie or abdicate their responsibilities, they chip away at the leaking reservoir of public trust. Everything we do – from the serious act of extracting fossil fuels from the core of the earth to the simple pleasures of watching a DVD – rely on some measure of trust.

Relationships are the great glue that holds us all together.  Jonathan Cohen, a professor of law at the University of Florida helped institute Florida’s “safe harbor” laws which allow offenders to offer “benevolent gestures expressing sympathy or a general sense of benevolence” to victims.

Based on his work some states have since adopted versions of these “I’m Sorry” laws. In speaking about his work, Professor Cohen captures the power of the potential of apology, “Apologizing isn’t just for the aggrieved person; it’s for yourself. When you refuse to apologize for a wrong or are told by a lawyer or insurer not to do it, it dismantles one of life’s most basic moral lessons – owning up to our mistakes. Apologies are needed to re-establish the moral universe.”

 What do you believe about apologies, public or personal?

As always, I appreciate your readership, comments, subscriptions and shares!

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners

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