Why it’s not good enough to apologize and move on

“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.

There’s more to brand rivalries than meets the eye

Jab, jab, block, right hook — duck. Is it a boxing match?

No, it’s a communications campaign and you’ve got a front-row seat. For Americans, hearing companies snipe and jab at each other is a daily occurrence.

Verizon vs. AT&T, Apple vs. Microsoft (and vice versa), Wendy’s versus McDonald’s — the list is endless. As consumers, we may enjoy in some light schadenfreude as the highly produced and jam-packed advertisements flit by, but are they actually working?

The millennials have spoken

A quick survey of millennial friends (sorry- most of my friends are millennials) revealed that the answer is not so simple.

With such a wide array of views on brand rivalry, it’s surprising that companies are still choosing this technique. In recent years, Coca Cola vs. Pepsi, Nike vs. Adidas and McDonald’s vs. Burger King stand out in consumers’ memory.

What’s surprising is consumers recognize rivalries even among brands, such as Nike and Adidas who mostly have it out on the pitch, that avoid direct confrontation, in addition to the overt rivalries between social media provokers like Burger King and Chick-fil-A.

Burger King’s tweets have been gloves off, even offering to honor a discount promotion offered by McDonalds and lead the consumer to the closest Burger King instead.

If that’s not a good application of mapping software for brand rivalry, I don’t know what is.

But respondents’ opinions on what makes a convincing message are highly subjective. While some respondents preferred “data driven statements,” others liked “playful brand communication,” the cleverness of the campaign and “humbling acknowledgment of their rival.” Many agreed that the messages should be honest and give accurate insight about how competing products differ.

Survey: https://surveymonkey.com/results/SM-6LCK5ZPG7 (Respondents=15)

The takeaway from all of this is that any brand considering brand rivalry style of communication should make it appropriate for the TPO, their brand image and industry. Is it just me, or have we seen a drop in overt brand rivalry since the start of the pandemic?

It seems that there are bigger fish to fry in the advertising world.

Standard practice in the U.S. is tentatively adopted in Japan

Momotaro (Peach Boy) Goes to Devil Island by Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892)
Original Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892) Japanese Woodblock Print
Momotaro (Peach Boy) Goes to Devil Island

In Japan, comparative advertising has been historically avoided due to business practices. Overt comparison is distasteful and advertising agencies haven’t necessarily limited themselves to representing only only client in each industry, as is popular in the U.S. (Hence the creation of “conflict shops,” the creation of separate agency brands to give competing clients different representation)

In 1987, the Japan Fair Trade Commission loosened regulations and established three rules for comparative advertisements, thereby effectively acknowledging and allowing them in Japan.

While outright comparison is still largely taboo in Japanese culture, indirect comparison can be found if observing closely. One good example is the 2017 ad campaign for Pepsi (whom you might remember as launching the “Pepsi Challenge” during the Cola Wars period of 1970s -1980s) themed on the traditional fairy tale “Momotarou (Peach boy).”

It is often said that comparative advertisements are the weapon of the underdog — and in this case Pepsi embraced that image.

Momotarou is a boy born from a peach who has adventures with various animals until finally visiting demon island and slaying the powerful demon. While tapping into the image of Pepsi as a scruffy underdog (Momotarou) the 5-TV-commercial series drums up the viewer’s sense of righteousness and excitement with movie-like production values and the actor Shun Oguri.

Though Coca Cola never enters the picture directly, anyone with prior knowledge of the Momotarou legend and the red demon defeated in the end will have no difficulty connecting this ad campaign to the battle in the real-world soda industry.

Pepsi took it a step further by making the commercial itself “user generated content” by casting Pepsi drinkers in the final episode.

The success of this commercial can be attributed to its incorporation of the three elements of successful brand rivalry (attack ad) content and adaption to Japanese communication culture: high context, low (direct) confrontation.

Source: Slideshare by Dirk Herbert, Chief Strategy Officer for Dentsu Aegis Network U.S.

Does brand rivalry really exist in Japan?

During a short presentation on U.S. brand rivalry, Japanese PR experts in my professional circle agreed that indeed the brand rivalries of the U.S. were a form of communication in and of themselves, effective at leaving strong impressions. But when it came to Japanese brands, brand rivalry is an unpopular style, they emphasized

Even comparative advertisement, as noted above, wasn’t clearly allowed until 1987, after so-called “external pressure” 外圧 from foreign brands looking to apply the technique to the Japanese market.

But is it really true that Japanese brands don’t leverage antagonism to make their own brands shine? I posed the question to my Japanese colleagues.

Example 1: In-group rivalry

Best exemplified by idol groups like AKB48, Nogizaka 46 and Kanjani 8, idol groups are the perfect place for building engagement between fans via the rivalry of members. AKB48 and Nogizaka 46 perfect this by holding annual “elections” where “centers” (leaderes) are elected, resulting in tearful and grateful acceptance speeches.

Example 2: Corporate monologue

Unlike dialogues in Western culture, Japanese debates are traditionally a long monologue in which the speaker expresses a series of opinions, explains Professor Yasushi Ogasawara of Meiji University.

Certain types of advertisements by Japanese companies can be categorized as this monologue-type of debate. An example from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun:

Advertisement by Iwatani Corporation published in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun calling on readers to move the world with hydrogen.

In this example, advertiser Iwatani asks the reader to question if the human race has the energy to power the next 100 years, then espouses the benefits of hydrogen: it doesn’t dry up, it can be used to power cars and send people to the moon, etc. It is a monologue against society’s current energy choices.

Example 3: Domestically producedappeal

The Japanese consumer considers “made in Japan” to be a guarantee of quality, and for no small reason. Standards for quality are high in Japan, and Japanese manufacturers work hard to meet them. As more imported goods, especially food, enters the Japanese market, Japanese manufacturers have to fight off foreign brands sold at cheaper prices.

One standard approach is the “made in Japan” appeal. Take for example, this advertisement created by Japan Agriculture (JA), the huge cooperative that buys and helps distribute the products of small-scale farmers and other food producers. (For more about how JA works, see this great blog post on Hackerfarm)

It superimposes a white monologue of text over a sukiyaki pot filled with presumably domestic ingredients. A summary translation of the text follows.

Japanese people tend to purchase domestic only when they are worried for their safety

Food problems are prominent in the news now. Yet while you might check production area from time to time, most of the time you are probably purchasing the cheapest choice, imported from abroad. Actually, more than half of our food is imported from abroad. The more we choose imported food, the more our food self-sufficiency rate drops. To prevent this problem, we all need to purchase more domestic ingredients — after all, Japan is blessed with the environment to grow many different delicious ingredients. JA Group will continue to strive to support local farming and communities so that it can bring safe domestic ingredients to consumers.”

My Japanese colleagues were put aback by this example. “It’s just encouraging consumers to support their own country’s products — it’s not necessarily nationalistic or rivalry,” one man commented.

But look closely, and you can see how the advertisement lays out the pros and cons of the products on both sides of the dichotomy of domestic v. foreign, while also calling on the three key elements for a good attack ad: rational, emotional, and cultural. Sure, the ad doesn’t include an overt comparison of any product in particular, but it does acknowledge the antagonism of domestic and foreign-produced products, while encouraging the false impression that all foreign-produced products are less safe than those that are domestic-produced.

Ad campaigns and messaging plans are merely an extension of the varied rhetorical devices developed over centuries of human interaction, taking advantage of the cultural, emotional and rational triggers inherent to us humans. Take a closer look at the messaging around you and you’ll find there is more than meets the eye.

Feel free to comment or message me with your realizations and thoughts about ads, messaging, and rhetorical tactics in the public sphere!

How cancel culture is a little like 村八分, and social media is the new “village”

The phrase “cancel culture” has been popping up more and more lately. While the phrase has been around for years, most prominently on US Twitter, mainstream media and public figures have caught on too.

Google Trends results for “cancel culture”

Cancel culture, for those who aren’t avid Twitter users, is when many thousands of users call for boycott (ending) of someone who has made an untoward comment at some point in the past, typically about a minority demographic.

村八分 (mura hachibu), for those who aren’t Japanese speakers, means the shunning of someone from social life. It is said to have originated in the Edo Era and refer to a villager being excluded from 80% (hachibu) of village (mura) life due to a transgression against social rules including failing to contribute to communal work, etc. The 80% refers to the parts of village life the transgressor is excluded from: births, wedding, construction, etc.. The remaining 20% contains the communal issues they are included in to protect the village as a whole: fighting fires and managing funerals.

People are in danger of being mura hachibu-ed in modern Japanese society too, and the word is well-used, though now it refers to exclusion from polite society more than social services.

Social media has created modern villages full of mobilized villagers. Our posts may be subject to judgement of many millions of these villagers, who tend towards mobbing. It’s no coincidence the New York Times made a cancel culture spoof video set in medieval Europe:

But there is a major distinction between cancel culture and mura hachibu. The former’s effect is almost completely contained on social media. Damning, yes, if your livelihood is built mainly there, but decidedly less devastating if you’ve built your fame anywhere else.

Meanwhile, the mura hachibu affects the shunned in a very real way — it cuts them off from the very social fabric of their community. In the U.S., it is very rare to find an issue that all agree on, so being shunned on social media by even a large group of users doesn’t translate into real-world shunning — There is always another group there ready to accept the shunned. (That said, cyber bullying is a real and serious problem in Japanese society contributing to mental health problems and even suicide)

The Central Park Karen case is a recent example of someone shunned in real life — this “Karen” was fired. She took real-world action and called the real-world police on a Black man, just at a time when the American public and local government were keenly aware of the dangers of police brutality against unarmed Black men. Her carefully written apology fell on deaf ears.

sticky note with apology
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

So is the apology, a point of great difference between the U.S. and Japan, a waste of breath? In the U.S., it appears it might be.

A 2015 study found that subjects felt apologies made them feel “unaffected” or made them “more likely to desire that the individual be punished.” A smaller study found that no matter what the apology was for, the very act of apologizing appeared to lower support for the politician in question. (And maybe to no surprise, as an “apology” originally meant a defense of oneself or justification.)

Let’s look at modern Japan’s treatment of the famous who have broken social rules.

In recent years, many a politician has scandalized the Japanese public with embezzling, corruption, gambling, etc. while countless celebrities have filed for flashy divorces, been busted with drugs, or been caught cheating on their picture-perfect wives.

In any of these cases, a perfunctory 謝罪会見 (shazai kaiken; apology press conference) is held, where the guilty party, invariably dressed in a black suit and with solemn make up and hair, expresses their regret for having inconvenienced everyone with their scandal with a deep, X-second-long bow. (It’s such classic material that several online media publish best/worst apology rankings annually.)

But unlike mura hachibu, despite the searing headlines and intense media focus, many of these transgressors eventually wiggle their way back into the political or entertainment worlds. (Interestingly enough, some celebrities make their comebacks in nontraditional media channels, such as online video)

Japanese idol, Junosuke Taguchi does a dogeza after release from a detention center where he was held on charges of possession of marijuana, a serious offense in Japan. (Sankei Digital)

In fact, public apologies and even 土下座 (dogeza), one of the highest forms of apology in modern Japan, seem to have appeared on the scene after World War 1. This is also the time of mass media’s advent. The Japanese public has grown cynical, and dogeza are now the target of derision or suspected of being a “performance.” Yet, apologies are still requisite in the public realm. A successful return to former glory is subject to some complicated calculus based on original popularity, sincerity of apology, public sentiment at the time, and the severity of the violation.

While it seems clear what the “rules” are in the case of Japan’s shunning, and public figures tend to stay away from the touchy subjects.

In the U.S. having no opinion on a subject lead to attack as quickly as having the wrong one. Even a thoughtfully presented argument on one topic can be reduced down to its insinuations, alleged intolerance and XXXphobia, all while ignoring the veracity of the parts.

In the U.S., stronger demands for political correctness and sensitivity towards a wide diversity of groups turn the public sphere into a minefield of sorts. One statement can trigger an explosion, and no amount of explaining and dialogue seems to help. Even brands need beware: “the majority of consumers (76%) have taken an action in response to a brand doing something they disagreed with, including no longer buying from the brand, switching to a competitor, or discouraging others from buying from or supporting that brand,” explains Alison DaSilva, Managing Director, Purpose and Impact, Zeno Group.

Some say it has gone too far. A group of intellectuals in Harper’s Bazaar call the current situation an “Intolerant Climate.” The nature of the debate, particularly on Twitter where posts are limited to 180 letters, are tending towards the ad hominem and do not contribute to a constructive debate, they claim.

So how do we balance tolerance with free speech?

Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash

Bashing itself may be a gut reaction born from the fear that an unpleasant statement could spread and influence if not nipped at the bud. Our answer to that may lie in trust.

At the end of the day, we must trust that

1) there is such a thing as truth,

2) our fellow citizens have the ability to understand truth while also having an individual opinion

3) constructive debate can be had if all parties make a concerted effort

4) even if we don’t all agree, we can create a shared society where none of us are murahachibu-ed.

The world is no longer filled with isolated villages bound with oppressive practices, is it really in our best interest to recreate them? A well-reasoned, well-researched, polite counterargument is perhaps one of the best ways we can contribute to our own societies.