“He just put his foot in his mouth ― don’t get upset.” “Don’t judge the forest for the trees.”

Twitter user

Anyone can have a slip of the tongue or fail to predict how someone could misinterpret your words. You might try to assure the offended person that you didn’t mean it that way. But deep down, you know that they’ve been hurt.

In a close relationship, our friends and family are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt because we have a long-term relationship that can assure them of our sincere desire not to hurt them.

But when it comes to public figures, we have no such relationship, and as such, no “benefit of the doubt.” Indeed, a public figure with a long record of ethical and conscientious behavior may ride out the storm more quickly. This type of social capital that is built up carefully over years and has managed to reach the public to leave enough of an impression.

How are we to be forgiven for our bad comments?

The degree to which the public can and will forgive public figures for their reprehensible comments or deeds seems to depend on a combination of their record up to then, their immediate reaction, and their commitment to addressing the cause of the uproar.

Rarely does a misstep or slip of the tongue garner sustained domestic or international attention, but when it does, one can be sure that proper and thorough crisis communications countermeasures should be taken.

Here are six principles, shortened for practical purposes, for an effective apology as outlined by Kešetović, Toth, and Korajlić (2014):

  1. You have to recognize what has been done.
  2. Others should also be given the opportunity to criticize the made mistakes, avoiding the preventive apologies.
  3. An apology is not enough but the responsibility has to be accepted as well, avoiding the childish excuses.
  4. The public has the right to know what actually happened.
  5. An apology should be supported by the efforts to improve things.
  6. Finally, the subservience and shame need to be shown as secondary equivalent to repentance.
Kešetović, Želimir & Toth, Ivan & Korajlić, Nedžad. (2014). Apology as crisis communication strategy-importance of cultural context. 38. 171-178. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292068291_Apology_as_crisis_communication_strategy-importance_of_cultural_context 

These principles are presented as universal, but certainly the format and custom of an apology is highly dependent on the local culture.

You may have heard that Japan is a country that highly values apologies. Yet, it would be wrong to think that a Japanese-style apology would satisfy a Western audience.

Much of Japanese culture contains predetermined formats for social exchange. The words we use when we start a business relationship, meet people for the first time, have inconvenienced someone, express an opposing opinion, or even just email someone are, to a large extent, usually limited to formats. And this is satisfactory in the Japanese context.

At times, individuality of expression might even be derided. I remember when one non-Japanese coworker used an inventive metaphor to describe her new job at her resignation speech some Japanese coworkers snickered. I thought it was creative and memorable ― I still remember it to this day.

But I digress. Apologies, which are expected in Japan for a range of things that Western cultures wouldn’t consider necessary (ex: arriving on time when your friend has arrived early, forcing them to wait for you), have become another formality (形骸化).

Kovacs asked the Japanese public what elements they expected at an “apology press conference.” The results show that the top three items required, ranked in terms of importance, there were:

  1. Explain what happened in detail
  2. Talk about next steps
  3. Use polite language (closely followed by “Talk about next steps”)

“Bowing,” “resignation of the person responsible,” “tears” and “saying ‘I’m terribly sorry’” all ranked lower.

Kovacs, Emese. (2016). Apologies to the media as a social function. Musashino University. https://repository.musashi.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/11149/1800/10/03_Kovacs_text.pdf  (Japanese only)

These press conferences, for the most part, are clucked over, processed, and eventually forgotten in Japan.

It’s when a Japanese style of apology hits the international stage that it can really cause problems.

The case of Japan Olympic Committee Chairman Yoshiro Mori

As you may have heard, Japan Olympic Committee Chairman Yoshiro Mori met with domestic and international disdain earlier this week after comments about women in meetings exploded in social media and traditional media.

And bad news spreads fast. It earned him coverage from the BBC, The New York Times, Financial Times, Reuters, NPR, CNBC, AP News and a number of international media.

While I won’t take the time to translate his comments in full, which were recorded word-for-word on video camera, the gist and nub of his statements were that he thought women made meetings longer because they were unnecessarily competitive and spoke too long. He added that he was receiving pressure to increase women in meetings from MEXT, the Japanese ministry of education.

Reactions to his comments, both in Japan and internationally, ranged from vitriol and outrage to “I don’t understand what the problem is. Isn’t he right?” It’s a herculean task to explain to anyone who didn’t immediately see the sexism behind the remarks, so I’ll leave that to more energetic people.

Let’s address how he added fuel to the fire with a botched live apology “press conference.”

Just 20 minutes long (length is thought to indicate the apologizer’s willingness to be questioned and rebuked, AKA their level of sincerity),  Mori’s statement lasted 3 minutes while Q&A time was 17 minutes.

This conference unfortunately reinforced the impression that Mori was unrepentant and failed to satisfy the six principles of apology:

  1. You have to recognize what has been done.  

⇒ He read a prepared statement that he regrets and rescinds his statements, and apologizes for causing trouble. The meat of his apology focuses on causing trouble for people aiming to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

2. Others should also be given the opportunity to criticize the made mistakes, avoiding the preventive apologies. 👎

⇒ Interrupts journalists. Is uncooperative in answering questions. When a journalist prefaces by saying he will ask “several questions,” Mori shoots back, “make it one.”

3. An apology is not enough but the responsibility has to be accepted as well, avoiding the childish excuses. 👎

⇒ Rejects the idea that he should resign and explains that he didn’t make statements at the Organizing Committee, but at JOC, and said that he made the offensive comments upon consideration. Says that foreign media are misrepresenting the fact that the comments were made at JOC, not the IOC, and that he made the comments as a closing greeting at the JOC (implying that this is an important distinction).

Mentions many irrelevant details, even explaining that people shouldn’t “worry too much about the figures (ratio of women on committee as recommended).” Explains that he was just repeating what was said to him about women in meetings in the other committees, though he didn’t have support for this assertion.

4. The public has the right to know what actually happened.   

⇒ Explained why and under what circumstances he made the statement very well, but doesn’t support that his rescinding of the statements was based on a genuine understanding of wrongdoing. Explains that he feels his statement was inappropriate and that it is wrong to distinguish between women and men, but also says that he heard many subcommittees complaining they are being inconvenienced by women who speak for too long. Avoids clarifying if he believes this.

In response to Mainichi Shimbun’s question if he believed women spoke for too long (blabbed), Mori responded, “I don’t listen to women lately, so I don’t know.”

5. An apology should be supported by the efforts to improve things. 👎

⇒ No mention of an acknowledgement of his own attitude or an effort to meet MEXT goals for female representation on the committee or reassure current female members that he doesn’t consider their behavior to be problematic.

6. Finally, the subservience and shame need to be shown as secondary equivalent to repentance.

⇒ Throughout the press conference, he showed a confidence that he was appropriate for his role, that his comments weren’t actually problematic, and that he had no need to report directly to the IOC or speak directly to foreign media about the incident. (even forces journalists to take their masks off when questioning him)

Note that the Japan Olympic Committee had already issued a carefully worded written statement, which had it had a chance to stand alone, may have more effectively quelled the flames.

It bears noting that this conference failed to satisfy all top three priorities discovered by Kovacs (2016), by failing to “describe next steps.” It also rings as insincere, earning it the title of 逆切れ会見 in Japan, or conference where he “snapped back angrily.” This response shows that the 6 principles above can ring true in an international stage, including Japan.

More importantly, the communications takeaway is that when authenticity and genuine repent cannot be guaranteed, a spokesperson should stay out of the limelight.

Ultimately, Mori contributed to a long-standing perception of Japan as a country that won’t make progress on gender equality, to add further to the PR problems of a troubled Tokyo 2020 games.

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