Fessing Up in Public: How to Admit Mistakes Gracefully

When GE CEO Jeff Immelt delivered his Renewing American Leadership speech last year at West Point, he called out the mistakes made by the financial sector—which includes units run by GE. No one likes to admit they’ve done something wrong, especially in public. Here are some tips from Peter O’Toole, a director of public relations at GE, on how to do so forcefully yet gracefully.

• There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution and, often, it’s a cultural issue. “In one place culturally, getting up and admitting a mistake would have you looking for a new job the next day,” O’Toole says. “I think that’s one of the reasons you aren’t often seeing that kind of frankness and humility.”

• Ideally, have all your ducks in a row before getting on the podium, then be honest and clear. “Jeff had not made this kind of a landmark denunciation and outlined his vision of running a big company and what a country could do and should do,” O’Toole says.

Don’t be defensive. “Being defensive is fatal in many instances,” says O’Toole. “We’ve seen that in some of the big crises that have happened in the past year.”

Read the full case study in PR News

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