What a sorry year this was. A year that began with hope in North Africa and ended with thousands of women marching through the streets of Cairo, demonstrating for the right to be heard and not beaten. Any year that takes away Elizabeth Taylor and Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel and Steve Jobs, and leaves all the Kardashians behind deserves to have its patootie kicked into the great beyond.
If 2012 brings the apocalypse – which an alarming number of people continue to believe, until the Mayan Stephen Hawking steps forward to disabuse them of this notion – it still won’t blow as hard as 2011.
If it was a sorry year, it was also the year of sorries, when the magic eraser of the mea culpa was wielded in boardrooms and back benches around the globe. At some point, it felt like the world had embarked on a global Sorrypalooza tour, where the apologies flowed like booze in business class when BlackBerry executives are on board. I’m not sure we’ve heard a word of apology from those (now former) Research In Motion executives, who are reported to have chewed through their wrist restraints on the Air Canada flight they disrupted, but we did get a glum-eyed apology from its founder and co-CEO, Mike Lazaridis when BlackBerry service failed for three days in the fall.
“We’ve let many of you down,” Mr. Lazaridis said in an apology on YouTube, which has become the modern-day equivalent of the shameful, barefoot pilgrimage for the penitent executive. At least he looked like he was trapped in a basement in small-town Ontario, making it somewhat easier to accept that he shared our pain. When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings issued his YouTube apology for his company’s botched price increases, he was lounging outside, sunglasses in front of him, as if waiting to flag down a passing waiter for a pina colada.
It takes a big man to admit failure (and an even bigger man to laugh at him, as a cruel giant once pointed out). One of my favourite books of 2011 was Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, which examines how trial and error can be the most useful corporate strategies in the long run – and why, for cultural and psychological reasons, it’s so difficult for organizations to admit they’re wrong. “Faced with a mistake or a loss, the right response is to acknowledge the setback and change direction,” Mr. Harford writes. “Yet our instinctive reaction is denial. That is why ‘learn from your mistakes’ is wise advice that is painfully hard to take.”
You know who learned from their mistakes? The tampon people, that’s who. After yanking its beloved o.b. tampons from the shelf, Johnson & Johnson faced an angry backlash from female customers. (They had PMS and no tampons; this isn’t a demographic you want to mess with.) In a stroke of genius, the company reintroduced the product along with a personalized ad campaign. Women could enter their names on a website and find a handsome man singing to them about the intersection of sorrow and feminine hygiene: “Liz, I know we went away/ and let you down …” It was the best corporate apology of 2011, period.
This was the year when some mea culpas fell short of their intended targets. In Japan, where the byzantine rules of apologizing could fill a book, Sony executives’ seven-second bow of shame was judged an unworthy response to their foot-dragging after millions of customers’ online data were stolen. In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, Rupert Murdoch’s British newspapers ran giant ads that proclaimed, “We are sorry,” and his son James spoke, poetically, of the “quantum of damages” that had been done to its victims – none of whom seemed eager to forgive. People have a pretty finely tuned ear for the apology that’s genuine and the one that’s cooked up at 2 a.m. by sweaty executives in an underground bunker.
We’re all waiting for one apology or another. I’d still like a heartfelt “sorry” from the makers of Sex and the City 2, along with a cheque for $27, the precise value of my will to live, which expired during the sixth hour of that movie. At this time of year, everyone will feel there’s a slight left unaddressed from days gone by, whether it was the great Pictionary scandal of ’08 or the time your brother bought you size 13 hockey socks for your size 5 feet. My advice is to let it go and enjoy the day, instead. It’s better to forgive than to receive.