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Hearit book examines apology as a way to manage crises

Feb. 21, 2007

KALAMAZOO--The companies involved range from Ford and Firestone to Abercrombie & Fitch, and the personalities include President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, but all have one thing in common--their use of an apology to rebuild credibility and recapture public trust.

"Crisis Management by Apology: Corporate Response to Allegations of Wrongdoing," a new book by Western Michigan University's Dr. Keith M. Hearit, analyzes apologia as a tool for overcoming crisis and rebuilding trust among a wary public. It was published in 2006 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. of Mahwah, N.J.

Hearit, a professor of communication and interim dean of WMU's Lee Honors College, has worked for years in the field of crisis communications and says one of the biggest challenges in writing the book was simply bringing it to a close, even as new rounds of corporate crises and apologies caught his attention.

"I selected nine case studies on which to focus," Hearit says, "but even as the book was going to print, more intriguing cases were unfolding. It's a topic on which new cases emerge daily. Some play out in two weeks. Others linger for months or even years."

For the most part, Hearit says, the public apology is a dramatic production--the final scene in a one-act play. If it's a bad performance, he says, the impact can be worse than the crisis that provoked the apology.

"At a minimum, you have to make sure you don't do yourself additional harm."

Self-harm, he points out, is central to the study of corporate apologies. Although an occasional event like the Tylenol tampering incident of 1982 can trigger major public relations issues, the most frequent problems come from within.

"Contrary to popular belief, most crises are not the result of an external psychopath, but instead are self-generated, the result of internal screwups on the part of companies," Hearit says.

"Whether it be a product that is defective and causes egregious harm to people, an illegal scheme concocted on the part of senior officers of an organization or an accident that results in loss of life, organizations are more often than not victims of their own misdeeds."

In his book, Hearit examines the apology from all angles. His examination of the topic ranges from the specific language employed in an apology to the legal and liability issues that need to be taken into account. To examine the ethical issues of the topic, he tapped the expertise of a colleague, Dr. Sandra Borden, to co-write one chapter. She is an associate professor of communication at WMU and an expert in the area of communication ethics.

"That is an important part of this book," Hearit says. "Nobody really talks about the ethical issues that are part of apologies.

Nine very different case studies provide the real meat in the book. They include:

  • Accusations of plagiarism filed against historian Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Charges of risque advertising aimed at young teens by retail giant Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Ford Explorer/Firestone tire controversy
  • Loss of confidence in the American Red Cross following the organization's handling of post-9/11 donations
  • The 2001 collision of the USS Greenville with a Japanese fishing boat carrying a class of vocational school students
  • The University of North Dakota's decision to retain its Native American logo and mascot, the Fighting Sioux, in the face of pressure from a major donor
  • Pope John Paul II's apologies for church inaction during the Holocaust and its actions during early church history
  • Bill Clinton's handling of the Monica Lewinsky affair and related legal issues

As an academic, some of these hit closer to home than others, Hearit says, pointing to the Goodwin and UND controversies as particularly interesting. For a scholar, he notes, the Goodwin case is particularly haunting.

"It's really every writer's worst nightmare."

Hearit earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Central Michigan University in 1986 and 1988, respectively, and his doctoral degree from Purdue University in 1992.

"Crisis Management by Apology" is available through amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and the WMU Bookstore.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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