Engineered Apologies: This is Only the Beginning

Bloomberg Businessweek’s recent cover did a bang-up job of articulating the calculated inauthenticity of contemporary apologies. As is the curse of my Black Mirror brain, I couldn’t help but ponder the conversations soon happening behind closed doors…

Eliza walked briskly toward her office, minding her posture and pace, or any other signal of self-doubt. The hallway seemed impossibly long, and she felt her employee’s eyes upon her as she passed. Confused, pleading, angry eyes. Eliza just stared ahead, analyzing the tumble of stock data on her heads-up display. Or at least, pretending to.

As she rounded the corner into her office, the morning news cycle had just begun. She heard the ping-bloop percussion of watch alerts across the office, and her own name in the voice feeds. A small object hovered just outside her 50th floor window. A drone.

“Buzzfeed,” said the man in her office, “Alexa … close blinds.”

The morning sun disappeared. Eliza took a measured breath and focused.

As far as a CEO’s decisions go, she felt it was an easy one.

“Jared, I feel just awful,” she said, “I’ve let down our customers — I’ve let down our own people. I need to fix this.”

She stepped behind her desk and started interfacing with her tablet. Jared began to interject but Eliza cut him short. The look of determination slowly returned to her face. The look of a leader.

“I’ll apologize publicly. Today. People must feel awful. And they have every right to! I’ll draft up a plan for making things right. Maybe a public forum for their complaints? But action, real action based on what they …”

“Eliza,” Jared finally interrupted, “I would advise against that.”

She barely looked up from the screen, her eyes flitting across the display as a combination of microgestures and electrical signals converted her thoughts into words.

“And why is that, Jared?”

“The data says public forums just generate additional grievance nodes. We can’t afford the trashtags.”

Eliza huffed. Jared continued.

“Besides, the data says that apologizing is likely to be perceived as an admission of wrongdoing.”

Her eyes stopped scanning the screen, but she refrained from looking up.

“That’s exactly what this is, Jared. I did something wrong. And I’m admitting it.”

Jared nodded. “And I respect that, I really do. But they don’t. The bots will have a field day with it, not to mention the meme farms. Nobody is ‘too beloved.’ Not even you. Remember what happened in 2021?”

“Jared, this is nothing like Hanksgate.”

Jared sat on the corner of Eliza’s desk, and lowered his voice in that way that she absolutely loathed.

“Eliza, you pay me a great deal of money to advise you on your apology strategy. I’ll gladly take that money and just go sit on my boat. But I have this nagging professional work ethic, you know. I’d rather earn that great deal of money, and then go sit on my boat.”

Eliza set down the tablet and looked up. Jared was one of the best Remorse EngineersTM in the business. His work in Outrage Mitigation practically created the industry. And if he could orchestrate anything like the public apology that Comcast received last year …

Jared saw he was breaking through.

“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make it right. I’m saying we need to expaaand that definition of ‘right’ a bit.” Jared pinched together the index finger and thumb on both of his hands and pulled them apart, stretching out the word like verbal taffy. “The shareholders have every right to benefit from this situation.”

He flipped her tablet and made a few quick taps.

“I’ve already had the boys run a few sims in the Twitterverse. Ignore that botwave upfront. A few Russian disinforms, some SEO coat-tailing by Alibaba. But look at this beauty.”

Eliza scanned the vulgar emojigraph. Bombs. Puke-faces. Poop.

“With no official statement from you, this is 24 from now. The public lets you have it, of course. It’s as brutal as you’d expect. But then — and this is the best part — they go after Meredith.”

“My daughter?” Eliza asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes! Isn’t that great? Her looks, her learning disability, everything. And that’s our opportunity. See here?” He pointed to a cluster of broken hearts. “The new parent segs say ‘too far.’ Maybe 10 or 12 nodes at first …”

“But Mer …” Eliza questioned.

“10 or 12 nodes,” Jared leaned back on the desk, his hands up in defense. When Eliza paused to listen instead of tossing him out the window, he went in for the kill, “We amplify that signal, and that’s it. That’s when it swings neg to pos. We turn it into an anti-bullying campaign. Throw some money at schools. And Eliza, look at these numbers: we are better off than when we started.”

Eliza said nothing. She turned to face the window, plotting this decision against the countless difficult decisions she was expected to make every day. She churned alternatives, then returned to the data. It was an impressive outcome. Certainly better than she could have imagined. And of course there was Jared’s finishing touch: #imwithmeredith

“It’s textbook, really.” Jared continued smugly, “The three parts of a meaningful apology: data, strategy, and optimization.”

After a long silence, Eliza turned back.

“All right Jared,” she sighed, “we’ll do it your way. But I don’t feel good about this.”

“I know,” he nodded, “saying ‘I’m sorry’ is never easy.”

The leaders of today may be inspiring a very bleak future, but only time will tell.