When to Apologize
As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.
The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.
“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.
This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.
And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.
Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.
But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.
In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.
And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.
So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.