The art of the non-apology

This week, the media trainers of the world struck gold when Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsbury’s – and, if the deal’s approved, CEO of the newly merged Sainsbury’s/Asda – was caught singing 42nd Street’s ‘We’re in the Money’ while prepping ahead of a live news broadcast on ITV.

Of course, this is nothing new – there have been countless examples of spokespeople waxing lyrical when they think no-one’s listening. Who can forget this absolute gem from 2016, in which Ken Clarke takes a pop at just about everyone running in the Conservative Leadership contest?

Coupe’s excuse for singing this song? Well, he went to see 42nd Street last year.

That’s one serious earworm!  It must be sheer coincidence that, on the day when he’s suddenly loaded – that he’d be singing a song about suddenly being loaded.

Sensitive to the fact that, while he may be in the money, other Asda and Sainsbury’s employees – as well as their suppliers – might not be quite so lucky when this deal goes through, Coupe did go on to apologise.

Or did he? Here’s his quote:

“This was an unguarded moment trying to compose myself before a TV interview. It was an unfortunate choice of song, from the musical 42nd Street which I saw last year and I apologise if I have offended anyone.”

My real beef is with the word ‘if’. It fundamentally says, if you’re such a sensitive soul that you are offended by what I did, then I’m sorry. But I’m not saying sorry because I’m actually sorry.

I’d guess – and I may be wrong – that Mr Coupe didn’t say these words. They have all the hallmark of a slick corporate comms team that’s so focused on guarding the company’s reputation that every word is carefully chosen to ensure there’s no admission of wrongdoing.

It just lacks authenticity. I don’t say to my husband, I’m sorry if you’re annoyed with me for deleting last week’s Champions League Highlights (don’t worry, I wouldn’t dare). Nor do I say to my kids, I apologise if you’re angry at me for eating your Easter eggs while you were staying at Grandma’s (I was much more sincere).

A few months ago, following the Australian cricket ball tampering scandal, the FT ran a column saying business leaders should take a leaf out of disgraced captain Steve Smith’s book about fronting up and saying sorry.

It’s hard to compare the situations that lead to these two apologies, but the crucial thing was Smith was clearly sorry. He well and truly messed up, let countless people down, and was full of remorse. He’d lost everything he’d worked so hard for.

Coupe lost nothing by singing that little ditty, and it showed in his apology.