Free Advice: How to Say You’re Sorry

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Saying you’re sorry with grace can be hard under the best of circumstances. Saying it in public, whether in the glare of news cameras or simply in the presence of aggrieved parties, can be near-impossible.

Trust me; I’ve been through these situations a lot in my professional life. Please let me help you say you’re sorry so you and those nearest you can all get on with your lives.

Anthony Weiner, like Tiger Woods and so many more before him, stood in front of hot camera lights to apologize for publicly-disclosed bad behavior. Weiner, unlike Woods, had the added heat of a righteously (and rightly) pissed off wife standing right next to him the whole time, except for those unbearably excruciating moments when she herself took the microphone.

Woods, when he took his turn at on-camera apology was really more bizarre than cringe-worthy. Looking like an East German prisoner, not the super-winner mega-millionaire sports entertainer we’d come to know, Woods recited his pro formas from a thoroughly vetted script in an uncharacteristically unemotional monotone.

Public apologies for bad personal behavior are always painful, humiliating for all concerned, embarrassing, risky. Few people in that kind of environment do well, so these events rarely go well. No one leaves satisfied.

For next time (because there will be next times), here is the outline of how to apologize properly:

  1. I did this thing.
  2. I am responsible for its effects.
  3. I know I hurt people and I am sorry.
  4. I won’t do it again.
  5. Please let me make it better, or at least mitigate the harm I’ve caused.

Done. More is just self-indulgent groveling. Anything less is incomplete.

Following these steps has less to do with business gain or political success, which is why, I suppose, public figures rarely follow them, than it does becoming whole again as a human being.

To the extent these steps aren’t followed in practice, it is likely there are uncertainties, ambivalence, continuing fear or, perhaps as likely, the apologizing public figures are just following the advice of legal counsel instead of the wiser counsel of their own human hearts.

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PR Disasters – How Not To

Crises happen and communicating through them successfully is hard work. Here are some examples of crisis communication done the wrong way. Read. Learn. Avoid.

Netflix

Netflix has often had troubles communicating with its customers. This year, the CEO’s announcement that he was going to split the company in two puzzled everyone – there was no clear plan or even the slightest hint at a reasonable rationale for the move. Share value plunged, and the announcement was rescinded a mere 23 days later. Analysts wonder if Netflix will regain its previous status as the dominant market player.

News International

The worldwide reputation of News International and CEO Rupert Murdoch took an enormous hit when its newspapers in England were accused of bribing police and illegally wiretapping celebrities, politicians and crime victims. Early denials had to be retracted as more and more evidence proving long-standing patterns of truly horrible behavior made its way to the public.

Lowes

If you’re a home improvement retail chain, here’s something you would pretty much likely want to avoid – having your company name invoked again and again in a political controversy  over Islam in the month before the Christmas shopping season. Lowes pulled ads from a TLC reality show called “All-American Muslim” after receiving Florida Family Association (FFA) demands that it do so.  The FFA asserted the show was really undercover “propaganda that riskily [SIC] hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.” Lowes denied the FFA demands had anything to do with its decision, but could not and did not offer a clear explanation as to why it stopped advertising.

Sony 
Over 77 million PlayStation Network accounts were shut down by Sony after the company learned it had been seriously hacked. After many initial refusals to be open about the breaches, Sony contacted customers with mild recommendations for improved Internet safety and a promise the problem would be corrected within 2 weeks. New security problems and breaches pushed that date back again and again. Customers were left to wonder about whether, and to what extent, their own data had been compromised. Cost to the company was estimated at $24 billion in expenses and lost revenue.

Penn State

[My personal thoughts about Penn State and Joe Paterno are here.]

Sexual abuse cases are pure poison for educational institutions. The case involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky (photo, above) not only brought down his former boss, the beloved Joe Paterno, and the university’s president, it significantly damaged the reputation of Penn State. The university tried to cover up allegations and evidence of abuse by Sandusky for years before finally admitting wrongdoing and its complicit silence.

Congressman Anthony Weiner 

Weiner sent a college student a photo of his erect penis via Twitter. When the photos quickly circulated the Internet, as Twitter photos are known to do, and landed in the hands of mainstream news organizations, Weiner denied vehemently they were of his member.

When a second person came forward with photos Weiner had sent her, the congressman was forced to call a press conference and admit he’d engaged in the behavior. Soon after, he resigned his seat in Congress.

Durex South Africa

More Twitter stupidity.

Posted on the official DurexSA (condom maker) Twitter account: “Why did God give men penises? So they’d have at least one way to shut a woman up.”

Really funny, huh? Especially in a country that has a serious problem with sexual assault and rape. The company might have issued an apology and the story might have died there. But to lengthen the story and compound the problem the same account posted a defensive whine: “We have posted many jokes, see our timeline… And they not violent against woman! Re-read it!!!!!”

The company eventually apologized, but not before ruining its reputation.

MF Global

In October, after MF Global declared bankruptcy $1.2 billion in customers’ funds were discovered missing.

MF Global CEO Jim Corzine resigned but refused to disclose the disposition of his former customers’ accounts. In sworn congressional testimony, Corzine, the former New Jersey governor, insisted he had no idea what happened to the money and wasn’t aware of the missing funds until MF Global filed for bankruptcy.

Republican Presidential Candidates 

Politics and party aside, these public figures were in a class by themselves. One wonders about the level of campaign staff professionalism.

  • Herman Cain – Cain self-destructed with a lethal combination of ignorance and confidence. He was hit with multiple allegations of extra-marital affairs, always difficult for a “values” candidate, but it was really his poor staff work that finished him off. This interview at a major newspaper’s editorial board revealed his complete lack of preparation for both in the meeting and the job of president.
  • Michele Bachmann – Bachmann has been prone to gaffes throughout her career, so her presidential campaign proved to be an apt moment for opponents to find and disseminate her “greatest hits.” Rather than claiming many were taken out of context, or that she’d evolved her positions as she grew on the job as a member of Congress, Bachmann most frequently chose to either reiterate her indefensible positions or make even more confusing and ignorant ones.
  • Rick Perry – Perry’s entry was much anticipated; he achieved almost instantaneous front-runner status. Almost immediately, however, Perry displayed a complete lack of focus and preparation. Rumors, supported by viral videos, swirled that he’d made campaign appearances drunk or high. His inability at a nationally-televised campaign debate, to name the three federal agencies he wanted to close sealed his political fate.