An epidemic of contrition has broken out. Politicians, Oxford poets, the press and big businesses are now queuing up to admit mea culpa for wrongdoings and previous behaviour.
In the past few weeks, high-street retailer M&S apologised to its customers for charging more for larger bra sizes, while the Evening Standard ran an advertising campaign expressing regret for printing too many negative stories and for failing to act as a cheerleader for the capital. (This campaign is particularly perplexing. As someone who has worked in local and daily newspapers, I know it is almost a point of honour among editors not to go public with a paper’s mistakes. Apologies, when they prised from a newspaper, are usually hidden on a left-hand page and well away from the front). And you cannot turn on the television at night without seeing a penitent MP admit a shameful error in judgment for buying a duck island or scatter cushions out of the public purse.
What’s going on? Do these expressions of sorrow herald the emergence of a new relationship between government and citizens, businesses and consumers; a relationship based on greater openness and responsiveness? Or is it a stratagem – at a time when sales are poor and share prices are tumbling – aimed at differentiating the brand from those impersonal institutions that have got us in the brown stuff and make things worse by refusing to admit their mistakes?
According to Darren Briggs from Flametree Communication, a firm with expertise in leadership communication, the power of the internet is forcing companies to face up to their responsibilities.
“The role of public journalists and the ability of people to mobilise into communities of interest make it impossible for companies not to admit when they have made a mistake or let their customers down. If companies did not show humility, customers can vote with their feet.”
Darren said he saw first hand the power of the consumer while working at Nike when a boycott movement spread across US campuses among students angry at reports of worker exploitation in the Far East. And he draws a distinction between those companies, such as M&S, which have a reputation for good customer service and wrongdoers for whom sorry is just lip service.
“Actions speak louder than words and people can tell the difference between a genuine apology and someone like an MP who is only saying because they have been caught.”
And, at the end of the day, it’s our choice whether we choose to accept such apologies.