In late March, a Republican congressman from New York, Tom Reed, apologized to a female lobbyist whom he groped in 2017 and then resigned his seat in the House of Representatives. He publicly acknowledged his alcohol addiction.
Also, former Democratic governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, admitted in a Washington Post opinion piece on March 1 that he made a “serious mistake” in adamantly proclaiming in 1995 that life meant life for a person sentenced to life without parole. He conceded that he paid too little attention to the value of rehabilitation, maybe even redemption, in prison.
After seven people died in 1982 from cyanide inserted into Tylenol tablets, the Johnson & Johnson’s CEO publicly apologized with little or no prompting for the fatal tampering of Tylenol pill bottles. He did what few corporate leaders: he immediately took responsibility. Some thought he was crazy, perhaps rash. In fact, he was spot-on. The fortunes of Tylenol rebounded rather profitably after the CEO’s mea culpa; marketing experts suggested that the Tylenol brand would cease to exist. They were wrong.
In 1989, news headlines blared reports of a severe oil spill after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. Advised by attorneys to express no contrition, the Exxon CEO said nothing to alleviate the public uproar over the disastrous spill. When, after much stumbling, the CEO did claim responsibility and apologized; by that time the company’s reputation had suffered significant damage, as customers shredded their credit cards and stopped buying Exxon products.
A lengthy Harvard Business Review article, published in 2006, analyzed rather coldly and objectively the reasoning behind public apologies by political and corporate leaders. The decision-making process involves a cost-benefit calculation: would an apology help or hurt a corporation’s bottom, or in the case of a politician, his or her polling numbers and odds for re-election?
The magazine writer does not mention—unless I overlooked it, for which I apologize—another compelling reason: it’ is the right thing to do amid a crisis that you or your underlings precipitated. An apology for the plain reality of public suffering would seem to be a convincing reason to seek forgiveness, accompanied naturally by concerns over image.
I realize that some will consider me naive. And that might be true. An apology does not signify weakness, as many believe. In fact, it illustrates evidence of personal and professional character often secondary to bluster and finger-pointing in the public arena.
I recall that President John F. Kennedy accepted responsibility for approving the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Communist Cuba early in his presidency in April 1961. He had accepted the advice of his military advisors to invade our troublesome neighbor. He learned a difficult lesson that placed him in good stead during the standoff with the Soviet Union over the threatening placement of missiles in Cuba.
When I read Rep. Reed’s apology and intention to resign, I felt sympathy, not scorn for this public official and his demeaning behavior toward a female lobbyist. He took personal responsibility. He publicized his addiction. He accepted embarrassment as his punishment.
The cerebral Glendening, though out of office since 2002, decided to go public in claiming his mistake. While some might scoff at his confession, he certainly had little to gain by refuting his past remarks. I suppose his change of opinion could influence the state legislature as it deliberates over parole for juveniles. However, I doubt many legislators would pay attention to a former governor.
Sincere public apologies—even those constructed by crisis public relations firms—have value. They reflect some humanity and humility on the part of the apologists. They indicate a willingness to accept responsibility, as strong leaders should.
They illustrate sensitivity to public sentiment, if not to the inescapable harm caused by the activity or event that necessitated the public act of contrition.
As someone who has apologized often for my actions, and who has accepted apologies, I think a simple apology has lasting value. The benefit always exceeds the cost.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.