It seems that there have been a lot of public apologies lately. Most of them have come from public officials or famous people who have made big mistakes. They do a big news conference to supposedly bare their souls and apologize to everyone. All too often, it's a scripted, unemotional speech with poorly coached theatrics, and it rings hollow and disingenuous. Most important, it's too little, too late.
Two recent and poorly executed apologies were those offered by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods. After both apologies, which were leading news items for days, people talked about how the apologies were weak and the public was still not ready to forgive the wrongdoers. They were dishonest early in the game, and their later, weak apologies were not sufficient.
Lets be clear about something: In neither case was the negative response simply to the news conference itself. The deception or secrecy that came before the confession caused all the trouble. This was also what happened to Bill Clinton when he was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky affair. He lied openly before the truth came out. Had he been honest, admitted his mistake and worked to not do it again, there would have been no "depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" comment and I think the uproar would have died more quickly in the public arena.
A big apology, executed early and correctly, leaves people knowing so much that they feel a bit like a voyeur — that they probably know too much about someone's personal life. If, instead, there is a sense of dishonesty or "more to the story," both the public and the media will not let go. If all questions are answered, and there is an appearance of justice (i.e. punishment that fits the crime or is greater than the crime) people usually stop digging and start forgiving.
A big apology is sometimes considered a bad idea because it opens the person up for trouble at home or future legal trouble. Guess what: If a crime has been committed, the legal issue is there either way, and if the subject of a lie is an affair, the jilted spouse will be jilted whether an admission of guilt is offered or not.
Probably the best case study for this happened just over two years ago. Both Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were listed in the Mitchell Report as Major League Baseball players who had used performance-enhancing drugs. The two players approached the crisis in very different ways. Roger Clemens made a farce of his situation, even going to Congress and denying any involvement with drugs. Even the knuckleheads in Congress were able to see that he was lying. Andy Pettitte, on the other hand, took full ownership of the claims, answered every question anyone had, and was willing to take any punishment that would come.
Clemens quickly saw the media swarm over him, probing for more lies. Less than two years later, Pettitte pitched and won game six of the World Series, and was once again a hero.
The lesson is simple. When you screw up, admit it frankly, early, completely, and move on. The theory that you can lie your way out of a crisis is almost always untrue. Instead, it feeds the inquisitive minds of others and encourages them to dig deeper. If you've done wrong, don't hide anything. If you are completely honest (as Pettitte was), you'll find that people are ready and willing to forgive.
And this is as true in business as in any other realm.