As Clarkson admits fault, how genuine are public apologies?

21 May 2015 -


Top Gear presenter’s concession that he was in the wrong over workplace fracas flags up the management skills required to convincingly say sorry

Jermaine Haughton

Apologies are among the toughest gambits for managers and public figures to pull off. After all, they’re admissions that something has gone wrong, so they demand a sense of timing, an ear for tone and an eye for sincerity. Product lines, projects, reputations and even entire companies can hinge on the delivery – and the public usually makes its displeasure known when the message is thought not to be the genuine article. Former US President Bill Clinton was famously criticised for the way he apologised for his affair with Monica Lewinski, as was Lance Armstrong when he took to Oprah Winfrey’s show to admit for the first time that he doped to win all seven of his Tour de France titles.

That whole issue of how genuine public apologies are has been riding high in the news this week – particularly in the past 24 hours – and is a perennial theme in business and public life. So here are our ratings of how genuine some high-profile public apologies were…

1. Jeremy Clarkson

Today, it was the former Top Gear presenter’s turn, conceding in a radio chat with Chris Evans that it was his “own silly fault” for losing his place on the show after a bullying in the workplace scandal and putting its brand in jeopardy. In his first interview since the crisis, Clarkson told “I absolutely adored [Top Gear] and worked all through the night and paid attention to absolutely every little detail of it and then suddenly you are not asked to do that anymore and you do feel there's a big hole that needs to be filled.”

Although it’s not the first time Clarkson has been compelled to issue an public apology for his actions, he seemed particularly contrite after a couple of months’ reflection on how serious his actions were.

GENUINE ARTICLE RATING (out of five): ****

2. Peter Frankhauser

In the corporate world this week, the Thomas Cook boss came under widespread criticism after finally releasing a public apology more than 3,000 days after the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2006 while on a holiday provided by one of his firm’s tour operators. “I feel deeply sorry about the tragic deaths of Bobby and Christi Shepherd,” he said on Wednesday amid a set of financial results, “and as a father myself I can’t begin to imagine the grief [the family] are going through. I am committed to do everything I can to see how we can help the family to move on with their lives.”

To make matters worse, Frankhauser also had to apologise for holding on to the £3 million his firm had received in compensation from the incident – around 10 times more than was awarded to Bobbi and Christi’s family. Announcing that Thomas Cook would donate £1.5m to the children’s charity Unicef, the chief executive said: “We should have never accepted this money,” and added that “with hindsight”, the funds should have been given to charity “right away”.


3. Satya Nadella

Late last year, Microsoft chief Satya Nadella found himself in hot water for comments he made about the gender pay gap. Barely a full year into his tenure as the chief executive of the technology giant, Nadella had to apologise for saying that women should trust “karma” instead of asking for pay raises. The gaffe was made during a talk with Microsoft board member and Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe at last year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. Following a significant backlash on social media, Nadella acknowledged that his comments were “completely wrong”.

He explained: “Toward the end of the interview, Maria asked me what advice I would offer women who are not comfortable asking for pay raises. I answered that question completely wrong. Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap. I believe men and women should get equal pay for equal work. And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it’s deserved, Maria’s advice was the right advice: If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.”

Klawe also came to Nadella’s defence, stating that he clearly supports boosting career progression for women in the technology field – but “blew this one question.”


4. Mary Barra

The General Motors boss – the first woman to lead one of the “Big 8” automakers – was forced to issue an apology to her staff in March last year in the wake of the company’s safety-recalls scandal. The manufacturer admitted that it was aware for almost a decade of an ignition issue that affected 1.6 million cars and interfered with air-bag deployment – a problem that led to at least 12 deaths and drew the attention of an inquiry from the US Department of Justice.

In a video, Barra told GM employees: “Something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened. We will be better because of this tragic situation if we seize the opportunity. And I believe we will do just that.”

Although the apology was short, it was backed up by the announcement of an full-scale internal safety review – and by thousands of letters written by the chief executive to customers promising to solve the problem and prevent it from happening again.


Find CMI resources on bullying in the workplace at Management Direct (login required).

Click here for CMI’s thoughts on the gender pay gap.

Image of Jeremy Clarkson courtesy of Featureflash / Shutterstock.

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