The nature of the damage to individuals who do not get good apologies for their suffering makes them reluctant to step into the spotlight. The damage to them is very real.
The examples we have identified come from
- brave individuals who have already shared their stories either with the media or other support groups
- leaders who have either done “the right thing” or who have drawn criticism for the way they handled the situation they found themselves in.
The Old Vic
Anyone who questions the power an apology can have in helping victims cope with trauma should read Chloe’s story. It was not until three years after the needless death of their two-year old that parents Kate and Chris received an apology and got a sense that the failings that lead to Chloe’s death might be put right in future.
Maple Leaf Foods
In Canada, the apology act is sufficiently clear and well established to enable the CEO of Maple Leaf Food to say that to recover from disaster the “two sets of advisors he didn’t listen to were the lawyers and the accountants“.
As a result, when listeria bacteria got into its product and killed 11 customers, Maple Leaf Food could move swiftly. It accepted responsibility, apologised unreservedly and set out to become a global leader in food safety. How it handled the crisis is largely credited with the survival of the business.
A class action by victims, that had originally set out aiming for $100 million compensation settled for much less. The class was so impressed by how well Maple Leaf had managed the incident.
It took Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, 36 hours and three attempts to get an apology right following the ‘re-accommodation’ of David Dao on a flight about to depart to Louisville from Chicago.
The first was classed as a perfect ‘non-apology apology’; the second didn’t help matters in describing Mr Dao as ‘disruptive and belligerent’. It was only at the third attempt did anything like a meaningful apology result. But by that stage, the damage had already been done.
Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman
In 2016, the then Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman – Dame Julie Mellor – resigned, stating in her in resignation letter: “I have accepted and taken responsibility for mistakes I made.” The issue revolved around a tribunal ruling concerning sexual harassment in an NHS Trust.
Dame Julie wrote a letter of apology to the victim about the way the issue had been handled. In response, the victim told the local media: “Humility, honesty and a sincere apology go a long way to restoring faith in the NHS and its wider system. I respect Dame Julie Mellor for taking personal responsibility for her actions and I believe she has set an example for others to follow when things go wrong.”
In 2006, Bobby and Christi Shepherd, aged six and seven, died at the Louis Corcyra Beach hotel in Corfu, when they were overcome by fumes from a faulty boiler. Tour operator Thomas Cook, at an inquest, nine years later felt unable to formally apologise drawing stinging criticism from the affected family and media alike.
Though not widely reported at the time, during that coroner’s hearing, former CEO Manny Fontenla-Novoa was warned that he did not have to answer any questions that might incriminate himself. We can only wonder about how much better the situation might have been handled, had he been able to apologise without putting his personal liberty at risk.
An investigation commissioned by Thomas Cook soon after the inquest and led by former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King, noted the over-emphasis placed on legal considerations in the way decisions were made.
When sixteen people were injured (including two teenage girls who needed leg amputations) in a rollercoaster crash at Alton Towers, the company operating the theme park responded swiftly. As CEO, Nick Varney’s immediate attention focussed on the human elements of the unfolding tragedy.
He was quick to front the company response to intense media interest and was equally quick to apologise: “I would like to express my sincerest regret and apology to everyone who suffered injury and distress today and to their families.” While in no way minimising the seriousness of the incident – the company were subsequently fined £5m for health and safety breaches – his willingness to demonstrate humanity and humility was lauded.
When Volkswagen was caught using illegal software to cheat on emissions tests, Michael Horn, the chief executive of the company’s US business, appeared at a congressional hearing to offer “a sincere apology”, but his performance was widely rubbished.
Critics were unimpressed, saying Horn had not been candid enough about the causes of the scandal or delivered a clear commitment to change. They were unimpressed, too, that the company’s CEO Matthias Muller had not offered the apology in person.
BP (Deepwater Horizon)
BP chief executive Tony Hayward did face the music after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Having refused to undertake any media appearances, his first live appearance in a TV studio was in the midst of a crisis – not the best time to make your media debut. Hayward famously said he “wanted his life back” and never really recovered from that remark, given the scale of the human and environmental catastrophe. Before the end of the year he was gone.
In the 1960s around 10,000 babies were born with disabilities because of their mothers taking Thalidomide, which was prescribed to pregnant women as a cure for morning sickness.
Some 44 years later Diageo, subsequent owners of the assets and liabilities of Distillers who distributed the drug, apologised over the scandal and agreed to triple the amount of compensation payable.
One of the victims, Freddie Astbury, was quick to praise their actions: “It is an apology that should have come 40 years ago but it is appreciated and it will mean a great deal to people like me who live with the consequences day by day. For legal reasons Distillers never admitted liability. Now this apology and the settlement from Diageo draws a line under our issues with them.”
The Offside Trust
The Offside Trust was set up to support players and families who have suffered from sexual abuse during their time in football. It is independent, and tries to encourage other victims to come forward, without fear.
But the lack of an apology for the way victims were treated, when they should have been protected by a duty of care, is a real issue. At the launch of the Trust, abuse victim Steve Walters said he was disgusted that Crewe had still to issue an apology to former players who alleged sexual abuse during their time at the club.