Do corporate apologies make any difference?


Reading today’s Telegraph over breakfast this morning, I opened page 6 to see a large display ad by Barclays Bank, pictured, containing an open letter of apology signed by its chairman, Marcus Agius.

The apology is to do with the Libor interest-rate fixing scandal for which Barclays was fined £290 million ($450 million) last month by regulators in the UK and the US. It led to the resignations of Barclays CEO Bob Diamond and the COO Jerry del Missier. Chairman Agius had resigned prior to both of these men but “un-resigned” in order to lead the search for a replacement CEO.

As this scandal has been playing out – with allegations about who knew what at the Bank of England and the Treasury (and at the US Fed), along with finger-pointing at other banks who could also be implicated – the apologies have been coming thick and fast via reports in the mainstream media.

And now we have the words in a corporate press advertisement:

To all Barclays customers and clients,

We are truly sorry for what has happened and that you have been let down.

It is our actions now and over the coming months and years that will make the difference.

You are the lifeblood of our business, and we will not allow ourselves to be distracted from what really matters – delivering for you, day in and day out.

My colleagues work tirelessly to do just that. The Board and I thank them for their commitment and for their determination to ensure that customers and clients are at the heart of everything we do.

I also thanks you for your business. It is our responsibility to earn the right to retain it.

Marcus Agius
Group Chairman

Yet I wonder what the point of this is. Something to make Barclays feel good about? (“We apologized, it’s in the papers!”) A corporate catharsis? (“well, we apologized, and we’re moving on!”).

Would anyone really believe the words under which Marcus Agius has affixed his signature and name? Are they actually his words? I wouldn’t believe that – they read like a corporate press statement, not how anyone would actually speak.

While an ad-as-an-apology is an easy way to publicly show your contrition to large numbers of people – it’s in the mass media after all – is it actually effective? I guess that largely depends on your measurable objective.

But what I’d like to have seen is Mr Agius’ face and look him in the eye as he makes the apology. I’d like to believe his personal stake in that apology, especially if I were a Barclays customer or an employee, rather than think he’s just added his name to some sterile PR fluff that has doubtful genuine meaning and authenticity.

Do your apology ads, Barclays, by all means. But also add an authentic voice to it via video (you’ve heard of YouTube?) so that you give a real face to your sterile words and share something we can actually believe in.

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