All tagged Apologies

The legislators in the Canadian province in which I live recently charged the Ontario Securities Commission with reviewing corporate reporting standards in order to establish best practices for disclosure of environmental, social and governance practices. The commission has been asked to report back to the House by January 1st of this year. The announcement warranted only about 125 words in Canada's national newspaper which means it can easily die a languid death.

Behind the order to review disclosure practices (other than the standard opportunism of politicians looking to take personal advantage of a crisis in trust), is acknowledgment that the public and minority shareholders have this indistinct but genuine feeling no one in corporate boardrooms is championing good behaviour.

Never having sat on a corporate board (I have been a director on a hospital foundation board) I have no idea how discussions about things like executive compensation, minority shareholder rights, and environmental and social commitments are raised and debated. Having read Dickens, Marx, Althusser and Levy, and being ready to believe anything Gretchen Morgenson writes about boardroom mischief, I do feel a sort of native mistrust that the impact of a decision or policy on ordinary shareholders or a community ever factors into the colloquy. Worse, I end up silently cheering regulators (although seldom legislators) when they study corporate reporting standards and insist on more transparency, even though I know I shouldn't given the nasty stuff they can foist on business.

By all appearances, I'm not alone in mistrust.

But I also know that many corporate directors are honest and ethical people. They work hard to balance conflicting interests and to do what is right for the company, its shareholders and the community. So let's hope that out of the OSC's review the government doesn't default to punitive regulation. Rather it should encourage board-lead custody of ethical, inclusive and open behaviour. A good start would be to put forward suggestions for ways boards can collect and aggregate meaningful contributions (not just by shareholder resolutions and voting proxies)from people who deserve to have a say in crucial (not all) decisions -- in particular minority shareholders and 'communities of interest'.

Maple Leaf Foods (not a client) today launched a blog in response to the 2008 Listeria deaths caused by eating its deli meats and, as with much of how the company handled the crisis, it is a very good model for the language and tone of effective messaging . . . frank, honest and contrite. (Although its design is quite lackluster.)

The first post is by CEO Michael McCain and here is how it begins: "Since August 2008 twenty-one Canadians have died after eating Maple Leaf deli meats contaminated with Listeria.  We all watched in horror as the worst food safety crisis in modern Canadian history rolled across the country." Now that's frank and the antithesis of how many companies begin apologies after serious events.

Later in the post Mr. McCain writes "This was by far the most awful event in the one hundred year history of our company.  I can’t properly describe the overwhelming sense of grief and responsibility we all felt … I felt, personally (emphasis added).  You may remember seeing me on television back then, apologizing for the tragedy and vowing to develop the most comprehensive anti-Listeria program of any food company in Canada." He then goes on to outline in details the changes Maple Leaf has made to reduce Listeria findings in its plants.

Even more significant he actually raises three subsequent issues related to Maple Leaf Foods' safety performance that most people had likely forgotten.

Textbook . . .

Ontario quietly passed Bill 108, the Apology Act, yesterday . . . although for some reason media coverage has been very limited and more detailed information doesn't seem to be available on the website of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney-General.

According to soonews.ca, "The legislation would allow an individual or organization to offer an apology as part of the dispute resolution process without concern over legal liability. The Apology Act provides that an apology made in relation to a civil matter does not constitute an admission of fault or liability and would not be admissible in a civil proceeding."

What coverage there is focuses on the impact of the Act in particular on medical and other professionals and how it may assist in dispute resolution.

The important question is whether the Act will encourage legal counsel in Ontario to be more flexible in their advice to companies on what they can and can't say when their products or services cause harm. Is it too much to hope that this may open the door for companies to consider more active reputation defense strategies -- starting with expressions of regret and compassion -- rather than relying only on legal-driven refusals to comment for fear of legal liability?

Since I have such respect for the quality of writing and ideas (although not always the politics) in the British magazine The Spectator, I am always delighted when the point of view of an editor or writer corresponds to my own. (I am not foolish enough to think there is any correlation between the two other than coincidence).

So imagine my contentment in reading the February 14th number when both the lead editorial and a column by Sarah Standing echoed comments I have posted here and here over the past few weeks.

Sarah Standing on saying sorry:

" 'Sorry' has lost its mojo for me, it's gone mainstream. It's one of those words that began life as a covetable Chanel handbag only to end up as a worthless flake flogged on eBay . . . I no longer believe in all these force-fed public apologies. They're starting to sound very hollow . . . I'm old school and from where I stand a true apology should come from the heart."

And not, I would add, because a crisis communications or political consultant has said it is necessary to apologize when harm has been caused. Without sincerity an apology is nothing more than gamesmanship. 

The editorial 'Bonus Points' calls out many British bankers for the damage caused by the huge payouts they received, which lead as the editors conclude to the wrong balancing of risk and reward

"Bankers must face reality and bring about changes themselves, rather than trying to face down public disgust with a last-ditch defence of the status quo. Their profession has to revert to being dull but respectable, decently but not lavishly paid, transparent in its accounting practices and the way it measures profits, intelligently regulated, and by nature risk-averse. And if that means talented people drift away from the banking sector, so be it: there are plenty of other parts of the economy that urgently need them".

Better said than by me, but at least my ideas are in line with some top notch writers.