Is It Time for CEOs to Apologize for Economic Mess?

Not one prominent business leader has apologized for economic mess.

Oct. 24, 2008 — -- From a spectator's perspective, the public apology may be the most satisfying part of any scandal story arc. But so far, in the global economic meltdown happening now, not one CEO of a major company is falling on the sword.

Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve System, went before Congress Thursday and admitted he was wrong to trust the markets to regulate themselves, but he didn't utter the magic words, "I'm sorry."

Instead, Greenspan said, "I still do not fully understand why it happened."

The public apology has become de rigueur for celebrities and politicians who screw up.

"Seinfeld" actor and comic Michael Richards said he was "deeply, deeply sorry" after making racially offensive comments on stage.

With Donald Trump by her side, former Miss USA Tara Connor issued a mea culpa for drug use and partying during her reign and then checked herself into rehab.

Don Imus, Jesse Jackson and many more public figures have issued apologies for screw-ups big and small.

But in the middle of perhaps the most epic financial collapse in modern history, there have been no public apologies from any CEOs or business leaders.

Legal Strategy?

When Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, testified before Congress, he said he took full responsibility for his company's collapse, but didn't apologize.

"This is a pain that will stay with me the rest of my life," Fuld said to Congress.

ABC News called some of the companies at the center of the collapse; none of them offered an apology. They wouldn't even explain why not.

There are many theories about this apparent reluctance to apologize.

Maybe CEOs are temperamentally incapable of self-doubt? Or perhaps there are so many culprits in this scandal that it's easy to take cover?

More likely, the CEOs have images of Enron executives handcuffed and perp-walking their way to prison. They don't want to give prosecutors any possible ammunition down the road.

"A lawyer will tell you that anything you say at all by way of explanation or concession is going to be used against you by someone," said John Coffee, a professor at Columbia University Law School.

CEO Reputations at Stake

Not everyone agrees with that. Leslie Gaines Ross, a "reputation strategist" at the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, says CEOs should apologize and do it well.

"I think lawyers are always overly cautious, but I think this is the time when CEOs need to step back and think about what's the right thing to do," Ross said. "People want to read it on their faces, they want to hear a slight shakiness in the voice, they want to really believe this is a genuine and heartfelt apology."

She says former JetBlue CEO David Neeleman did it right when he apologized after the airline left passengers sitting on the runway for hours last year.

"I ask for your business and trust," Neeleman said in his public apology. "We will show you we will be a better company."

It's worth noting, though, that Neeleman was later forced out of the company.