Is ‘Sorry’ So Hard to Say?

Having proverbial foot-in-mouth disease seems to be rampant for Courtney Hazlett, a former reporter for OK! Magazine who now writes “The Scoop” gossip column for the MSNBC Web site. Hazlett previously raised hackles when she thoughtlessly described actor Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt as a “dress rehearsal” for the recent tragic death of the actor Heath Ledger.

Last week, Hazlett’s propensity for insensitive gaffes was again in full ignominious display. Detailing the feud that has recently sprung up between director Spike Lee and film icon Clint Eastwood over the latter’s failure in using African-American actors to play soldiers in two of his WWII films, “Flags of our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Hazlett described Lee as “uppity,” a term that has a history of racially derogatory overtones.

Immediately following Hazlett’s faux pas, MSNBC’s corporate communications department went into crisis management mode: They issued an apology on behalf of the reporter. But as a result, more attention was focused on the incident as opposed to before when it was barely registering on the radar. Did MSNBC overreact or should they have waited it out, allowing time to act as a healer?

Katie Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners, LLC, feels that in this instance, a formal apology probably did play a role in elevating attention on Hazlett’s remark but the “criteria shouldn’t only be ‘what makes it go away faster’ but ‘what’s the right thing to do.’ If the reporter used ‘uppity’ in a racially charged way, the apology was needed, regardless of what the impact was.”

David Henderson, a Washington, D.C.-based communications strategist and Emmy Award-winning former networks news correspondent and active blogger, echoes Paine’s sentiment about the entire Hazlett imbroglio. He feels the word “uppity” was “condescending and inappropriate” and that MSNBC was correct to issue an immediate apology for the usage of that word.

“To have waited might have given the suggestion that some people in the network agreed with the reporter,” he notes. “An organization’s brand image can be harmed by delay in speaking when something is blatantly wrong.”

Making a public mea culpa devoid of sincerity is hardly the answer either. “The real issue with apology is the quality of the effort,” says Jim Lukaszewski, CEO of the Lukaszewski Group.

According to him, the general rule of thumb is: “The faster you apologize, the better it will disappear.” But because celebrities live in their own insular, charmed bubble divorced from the rest of humanity, the PR rules on apologies don’t always apply.

“It’s very unpredictable [with celebrity media],” says Lukaszewski, who has written extensively on public apologies. “There is no proportion with them.”

By Iris Dorbian

  • Gerald Baron

    The art of apologizing is one of the most important topics in crisis communication and reputation management. This example is great for highlighting on of the key issues–how not to make it worse. The biggest issue relating to apologies is still legal and the desire of attorneys to protect against any implicit acknowledgment of guilt or responsibility. I have a few comments on this topic on my blog: