GOOG) search for "Toyoda apologizes" yields 74,000 results, and videos of Toyoda crying at the National Press Club racks up thousands of hits on YouTube. Toyoda's admission came after golfer Tiger Woods said "sorry" dozens of times in a broadcast for so-called indiscretions involving women outside his marriage. "Apologizing is a humbling step that gives the people you've offended some power over you," says Jonathan Cohen, a law professor at University of Florida who studies the legal aspects of apologies. "There's a particular drama that comes when it's very powerful people who are taking that step in the public eye." A good apology will help a company -- large or small -- protect its brand and save money if it is sincere and timely, experts say. "Business leaders often worry too much about readily admitting mistakes," says Peter Goolpacy, co-founder of Perfectapology.com, which offers opinions and resources regarding corporate and medical apologies. "Those who dismiss these concerns -- typically pushed by lawyers -- tend to weather the crisis much more effectively, often turning the crisis into a net gain." A sincere apology is an admission of guilt, which can be scary in a litigious society. But an early mea culpa may prevent lawsuits, according to Cohen. An apology serves to give a victim a sense of power, thus mitigating the anger that comes from feeling powerless -- whether it's about safety, as with Toyota, or a nuisance issue, such as a Comcast ( CMCSA) technician missing a scheduled service call. Cohen cites as an example the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington, Ky., which initiated a policy of "proactive" apologizing and mediation in 1987 after losing two malpractice trials costing $1.5 million. When the hospital started letting patients know about screw-ups as soon as possible, the honesty paid off. From 1990 to 1996, after initiating the mediation policy, the hospital paid a comparatively small average of $190,113 in malpractice claims, at around $15,600 per claim.
In the business world, companies such as Toro ( TTC) have established in-house mediation teams to avoid going on the defense in court. "The biggest mistake people typically make is waiting too long to apologize, meaning they do it reactively once the issue has broken out, almost like a type of damage control," Cohen says. "The best way when corporations discover a problem is to proactively accept responsibility for the problem." JetBlue ( JBLU) received praise when then-Chief Executive David Needleman not only apologized for a lousy week of runway delays in 2007, but followed up with instituting a customer bill of rights. "There's a fine line between a perfect apology and groveling," Goolpacy says. "JetBlue's big apology is a great example of a CEO getting very close to the perfection mark without going over the line." Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) went on the responsibility offensive in the 1980s after seven people in the Chicago area died from ingesting cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. The company got kudos for its immediate response, which included recalling the drug across the country and developing a tamper-resistant seal. On the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration recently publicly flogged the company for failing to react quickly enough when customers complained of stomach upset after taking Tylenol that smelled like mold. Organizations that wait too long to apologize may end up hurting themselves. The Catholic Church has paid settlements into the billions of dollars, with several dioceses filing for bankruptcy in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal that higher-ups kept quiet for decades. As for Toyota's Toyoda, saying sorry may have been more effective if it had come sooner. But the market responded positively to his efforts. The week that featured his tears ended up with the company's stock rising. -- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.