Can a company do Teshuva?

Corporations offering apologies for every manner of transgression is a common sight.  A man or woman, usually standing at a bank of microphones or perhaps in front of a message posted in a prominent way, explains the great regret felt, promises a full investigation and, usually, asks forgiveness of “any who may have been offended” or otherwise hurt.  From oil spills to inappropriate choice of sponsors to bad timing, we have seen just about everything.  However, this past week a pizza company made things interesting and raised a question: can a corporation do more than offer an apology, but actually “do teshuva?” That is, can a company  not only doing damage control after a major slip up, but actually engage in a sincere process of making amends for its own sake? The story began when the pizza company decided to take advantage of a twitter phenomenon that had actually highlighted one of the more powerful aspects of social media.  Following the public notoriety around the sickening assault by now suspended football player Ray Rice on his then fiance Janae Palmer, many women who had been victims or remained victims of domestic violence started to share their own experiences using the hashtag #whyistayed or #whyileft.

Suddenly jumping into this serious conversation came the corporate entry “#whyIstayed: You had pizza.”  The backlash against the company came quickly and was sustained by a deserved pillorying of the company on news and late night shows.  Obviously, it was important for the company to express remorse and explain that the now deleted  tweet had been a mistake.  However, instead of one tweet or post, whoever controlled the account started sending messages to each person who had registered their upset, often using a first name and tailoring the words to the specifics of each situation.  The spokesperson asked forgiveness directly and professed guilt for having been careless about checking the hashtag, but insisting that he or she would never have intentionally debased such a profound conversation with an advertisement. As of now, there are well over 200 such tweets and rising.  The result was a sort of hitech version of an old Jewish parable based on a traditional teaching about the damage done by even inadvertant harmful speech:

A man goes to the Rabbi to ask how to atone for having spread a rumor about another person that turned out to be untrue.  The Rabbi thinks and then she says “Get a pillow, cut it open, and throw the feathers into the wind.”  Delighted, the man goes and does just that.  Then the rabbi comes back and says “O.K., now step 2…. Collect all the feathers and bring them to the person you wronged.”  No longer delighted, the man balks, “How can I do that? The feathers are gone!” “And so,” says the rabbi driving home the point”, are the words that you have spoken! You can and should try to make amends the best you can, but even after you apologize to the person you have wronged, your words will not so easily be brought back.”

So, did the company manage to bring back the feathers, tweet by tweet? That question is impossible to answer.  And even as the spokesperson insisted that the whole thing happened due  to carelessness and not callousness, others have pointed out that this company also used a similar incident involving celebrities to insert their slogan into a twitter conversation.  However, for me the debacle raises the question about whether an apology that serves an ulterior purpose can be an act of teshuva — a sincere act of making amends.

While recent  court cases have explored whether corporations have rights and even religious identities, what can we make of the question of whether corporations can truly be sorry, rather than worried about the deleterious effects of offending others.  This question goes deeper than just the phenomenon of corporations making mistakes.  Because, I have to ask myself as well, are my apologies, even at their most sincere,  completely about doing teshuva or are they too at least partly about damage control?This period of time, leading to the High Holidays, should be more about such questions then definitive answers.  No one can get all the feathers, but it should not stop us from trying.  And as for the pizza company, it shall remain nameless here.  Hopefully, its apologies are more about responding to hurting others than protecting itself.  But either way, it has had enough free advertising.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Georgia.