We live in a world in which people don't want to take responsibility for what they do wrong. When forced, they issue non-apologies. They find a way to take the down the person who was offended or victimized. You know how it works:

  • "Mistakes were made."
  • "I'm sorry...if my words were misconstrued."
  • "It's unfortunate that the victim's face got in the way of my fist."

The last one is a joke of course, but just barely. You recognize the hyperbole. And that's why the CEO behind a recent corporate apology--a masterful one at that--is all the more striking.

Believe it or not, the company is Uber. The statement was issued yesterday by its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi.

Context: The city of London decided not to renew Uber's license to operate in the capital city, effective September 30, saying Uber was "not fit and proper" to run a car service.

The suspension date is a bit of a legal fiction, since Uber has already said it plans to appeal and it has the right to keep operating until its appeal has been heard. But there's a massive legal and PR effort in Uber's future. This is a big deal for Uber--losing its largest base of operations in Europe isn't just about London; it's about other cities that could decide to restrict it more strictly, too.

The company has 40,000 drivers and 3.5 million customers in London--and a half a million signed a petition to let them stay. But they're up against the mayor of London and the storied black cab industry--and, let's be honest: Uber is up against its own reputation.

So, yesterday Khosrowshahi issued a statement, one of the first important parts of that PR effort. Here's the key sentence--and, bolded for your convenience, the two most important words: "On behalf of everyone at Uber globally, I apologize for the mistakes we've made."

"I apologize."

"I apologize." Who the heck says that in 2017?

It's all the more striking, because of course Khosrowshahi wasn't even the CEO during the times when Uber did most of the things that the city transport agency, Transport for London, is faulting it for.

When Uber was designing and using Greyball, for example, Khosrowshahi was running Expedia. When Uber was allegedly failing to report criminal conduct in London, Khosrowshahi was almost 5,000 miles away, in Seattle.

Of course, the fact that Khosrowshahi is apologizing (in the first person), for things that didn't happen under his watch sort of cuts both ways. And the statement doesn't actually say what Uber is apologizing for. We all sort of know, since TfL spelled it out in its announcement, however.

Finally, some might say, of course, Uber isn't exactly totally prostrate here. In the sentence before "I apologize," Khosrowshahi provides some Uber-centric context: "While Uber has revolutionized the way people move in cities around the world, it's equally true that we've got things wrong along the way."

How to apologize correctly.

Remember when you were a kid, and you wronged somebody, and a parent or other adult told you that you had to apologize? And then, after you half-heartedly spat out the word, "Sorry," they said you had to say it again--this time, like you mean it.

That's sort of the position Uber is in here. It's great that Khosrowshahi offered a straight apology, but, as the New York Times put it, "the conciliatory tone represented a stark change for a company that, under its previous chief executive, Travis Kalanick, was better known for its aggressive approach from the get-go."

People aren't going to believe instinctively that Uber actually means it. Maybe it doesn't.

But that's the key to a great apology--a straightforward expression of regret that actually uses the words, "I'm sorry" (Khosrowshahi's "I apologize" is close enough), promises to do better--and is set forth in a credible way.

We'll see whether that's the case here. But--my apologies--at least it's a short trip in the right direction.

Published on: Sep 26, 2017