Thalidomide: a 50-Year Crisis

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    When lawyers write the corporate apology

    Editor’s Note: The following guest article by crisis management pro Tony Jaques is the perfect companion to Jerry Brown’s post, “Skip the Spin,” which you can find on the Bernstein Crisis Management blog. Combined, they present a powerful statement on the dangers that emerge when we indulge the temptation to spin the truth.

    It was another one of those “what were they thinking” moments. For more than 50 years the German makers of Thalidomide, Greunenthal, remained silent about the ten thousand plus babies born with severe deformities after their mothers took the morning-sickness drug.

    In an extraordinary move, Harald Stock, CEO of Greunenthal, then rather bizarrely chose the unveiling of a statue symbolising a child born without limbs erected at the company’s German headquarters to issue what the BBC called the drug-maker’s first apology in 50 years.

    It was a critical moment in a prolonged crisis. But the company statement showed every sign of having been carefully crafted by lawyers concerned more with legal liability than compassion.

    “We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn’t find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being,” Mr Stock said.

    “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.

    “We wish that the thalidomide tragedy had never happened. We see both the physical hardship and the emotional stress that the affected, their families and particularly their mothers, had to suffer because of thalidomide and still have to endure day by day.”

    It was statement sure to annoy and certain not to satisfy, especially when the company restated its long-held position that damage to unborn fetuses could not be detected by tests carried out before thalidomide was marketed from 1953 to 1961.

    British Thalidomide campaigners called the statement insulting and insincere, and declared that an apology should also admit wrongdoing. And from a strategic perspective one obvious question is why the company made the statement at all.

    The most telling response probably came from Australian mother Wendy Rowe, whose daughter Lynne recently received a multi-million payout from distributor Diageo.

    “It’s the sort of apology you give when you’re not really sorry,” she said.

    “I suspect he (Mr. Stock) might not know what shock is. Shock is having your precious child born without arms and legs. It’s accepting that your child is not going to have the life that you wanted for her.”

    “Our family couldn’t have gone into silent shock. We had to get up and face each and every day and cope with the incredible damage that Gruenenthal had done to Lynne and our family.”

    Mrs Rowe’s eloquent statement should stand as a reminder to corporate communicators and lawyers that apologies should actually be apologetic.

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    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management
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    Tony Jaques manages an Australian-based issue and crisis management consultancy and writes the regular newsletter Managing Outcomes