In fact, the auto giant has plenty of company. Firms like Netflix, BP, and Uber have issued unsatisfying apologies to customers and the public.
On Thursday, Volkswagen’s US head Michael Horn issued an apology for the recent scandal over revelations that the auto giant developed software that allowed it to cheat on its emissions standards tests in their diesel vehicles. Many found Horn’s statement tepid and less-than-sincere.
“This was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason,” Horn said to the House of Representatives Oversight and Investigations Committee, according to NBC News. “This was not a corporate decision. There was no board meeting that approved this.”
Compare that to Mary Barra, facing Congress last year following the General Motors ignition switch scandal. There was no passing of the buck, simply a statement offering the GM CEO’s “sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially to the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.”
Barra got rave reviews and was praised by many, including Fortune, for her deft handling and seemingly heartfelt expression of regret. Barra is the exception, though, not the rule.
More often than not, CEO apologies are similar to Horn’s; they lack emotion, they’re focused on moving on, and they seem like empty ploys by executives keen on hanging on to their job rather than actually making things right.
Perhaps the worst apology of all time came from BP executive Tony Hayward. In the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, Hayward said, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
After apologizing for an oil spill that seriously damaged the environment, badly damaged the oil industry, and killed people, Hayward’s primary focus was on how the fiasco had affected his life. He never recovered, and he resigned from the company later that year.
Netflix’s Reed Hasting had to apologize for a different kind of disaster: one that didn’t really hurt anyone, but just irked his customers. In 2011, Netflix decided to split into two companies: Netflix would continue the company’s streaming service, which had become its main business, and a new firm called Qwikster would run the DVD division. There was a revolt, partially driven by how silly the name Qwikster was. Hastings released an apology, saying he understood why people were mad, but he didn’t actually change anything. This angered Netflix customers all over again, Eventually, the whole plan was scrapped.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has had to apologize, a lot, mostly because people are constantly angry with his company. He isn’t very good at it. Last year, he took to Twitter to apologize after an Uber executive said he would use opposition researchers to find embarrassing information about journalists who criticized the ride sharing platform. Kalanick didn’t fire the executive. Many users weren’t satisfied.