Erin O'Connor

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Vanderbilt Law Review

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This Article examines the conduct of BP executives in the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to illuminate the use of apology by organizations. After briefly describing the value of apology and its nuances from an evolutionary perspective, the Article describes how apology and other responsibility-accepting behaviors can be mobilized by organizations to avoid the costs of its apparently careless conduct. In particular, organizations can designate particular agents as spokespersons who possess the ability to portray a sense of sincerity and regret. Moreover, reconciliation by ingroup members appears to be more common than is reconciliation by outgroup members, likely because the value of a future relationship is higher for ingroup members. In response to an event that harms others, an organization should designate spokespersons that resemble the victims and the victims' allies as much as possible. BP executives did a good job of responding promptly, accepting responsibility, pledging to repair the harm, and, at least initially, credibly conveying regret. However, BP's CEO eventually expressed weariness for the role of transgressor, an act that exacerbated the firm's public relations problems. The fact that BP executives were from other nations and were clearly members of a different social class from most of the victims tainted public perceptions of the executives' comments. BP's public relations blunders suggest a need for further study of the effect of ingroup/outgroup perceptions on the impact of apology and subsequent liabilities.

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