Equifax: The Sorry State of ‘I’m Sorry’

I’m sorry.

It’s a great phrase. Heartfelt, honest, humble, simple. It encapsulates all the things a CEO is supposed to be, when, say, your company opens about half the U.S. population—some 143 million people—to spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders in fear of financial fraud.

Take a look. Below, you’ll see Rick Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of credit titan Equifax staring into the camera on YouTube, clearly trying to showcase how much he Feels Your Pain.

It’s very much by the book. Remorse? Check. Responsibility? Check. Restitution? Check.

Somehow, though, it really doesn’t do it, does it? Why? As any PR pro knows who grew up on the post-Watergate idea, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that gets you. All the earnestness in the world won’t help when you don’t actually address the real questions. (Perhaps it’s worth reviewing John Kador’s “Seven Deadly Sins of Apology” which we ran a while back.)

Smith is suffering from what we’ll call Handler Syndrome. He’s so clearly walking through all the bullet points and saying All The Right Things, but meanwhile he’s sidestepping essential issues. What’s lacking is candor. The result is, well, you’ve seen the tape.

Far better would have been Smith explaining why Equifax waited six weeks to tell the American people that their data had been exposed to hackers back in May, which they’d discovered in July—something the company has yet to do.

Or perhaps he could address why three top Equifax executives, including the CFO, sold shares worth $1.8 million in the days following the company’s discovery of the breach, according to The Wall Street Journal. (A company spokesman told the Journal that they had no idea of the intrusion at the time they sold their stock.)

Look, hacking is a fact of life in today’s world. Every business, especially fat, high-profile targets like Equifax, will likely be penetrated at some point. It is just a matter of time. There’s likely a reason for the delayed disclosure—perhaps the FBI told them to hold off. Who knows?

The point is that sometimes saying your sorry isn’t enough. All the coaching and crisis management in the world won’t substitute for transparency, authenticity and timeliness. A bit of candor and courage wouldn’t hurt either.

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Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor-in-Chief and Chief Content Officer for Chief Executive Group, which includes Chief Executive magazine, Corporate Board Member magazine, and ChiefExecutive.net.

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