Tip Sheet: How To Avoid Apologizing (If You Like Staying In Trouble)


When bad things are caused by good (or bad) organizations, it is necessary to go against your gut instinct and resist what virtually everyone over the age of eight thinks should happen: an apology. The best current example of willful failure to apologize is jointly shared by the United States Veterans Administration and the United States Army. The Walter Reed Army Hospital scandal has cost top leadership their jobs, from the Secretary of the Army on down the line. Why? Let's listen to Lieutenant General Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's Surgeon General: "I do not consider Building 18 to be substandard....We frankly had fixed all of those problems. They weren't serious, and there weren't a lot of them." After blaming the news media, he went on to say, "This is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed." Then, there were the 2006 elections. "It Was Dumb, So Forgive Me" This approach always involves a disingenuous admission. New York State Controller Alan Hevesi was accused of providing transportation for his wife with state funds. Initially, he denied the accusation. Ultimately, before the election, he reimbursed the state nearly $200,000 and ran ads saying, "I'm human; I'm a good Controller who did a dumb thing. If you give me the chance to keep serving you in the job I love, I'll owe you everything, and those politicans nothing." Hevesi was re-elected, but is now convicted of a felony in the matter - and out of office. Failure or refusal to apologize is among the greatest triggers for bad visibility, busted trust and litigation. There is a growing body of data coming primarily from the healthcare industry that shows swift, candid and meaningful apologies actually reduce litigation, along with comforting those struck by adversity. If you're interested in some really good reading on the subject, hop on your favorite browser and search the phrase "extreme honesty." Information will pop up regarding a 10-year study done at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Lexington, KY. They tested the hypothesis that when medical errors occur, prompt disclosure to patients and their guardians, along with a sincere apology and admission, would significantly reduce litigation risks. "I'm More Of A Victim Than You" Another classic approach is Senator John Kerry's non-apology after he flubbed an Iraq "joke" during a visit with college students. After 10 days of dodging, blame-shifting and counteraccusations, his apology was, "I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who is offended." This is a non-apology and reads as insincere and disingenuous. It's getting harder and harder to avoid apologizing. Twenty-nine states have enacted laws excluding expressions of sympathy after auto accidents as proof of liability. The trend seems to be continuing. Once or twice each year the National Law Journal runs a story on the inverse ratio of litigation to apology. As the data continues to accumulate, attorneys recognize the power of apology to reduce the emotional affliction of victims and foster an environment of conciliation and settlement, rather than one of anger and confrontation. Apologies score points with juries. Despite almost daily lessons on the power of apology, it's amazing how ingeniously perpetrators try to avoid this single powerful step, even in the face of mounting evidence supporting apology as a conflict reduction strategy. Here are examples of other apology avoidance approaches: Pre-emptive Self-forgiveness "It's an industry problem; we are not the only ones." "This isn't the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last time." "We couldn't have known." "It's not systemic." "If we don't do it, someone else will." "Don't our good deeds count for anything?" "No one could have prevented what happened." "It's not as bad as it seems." The Minimalist "It's an isolated incident." "Let's not blow this out of proportion." "It was only one death, in one place, at one time. Why is everyone so angry?" "Not many were involved." "Let's not get ahead of ourselves." It's Mostly Your Fault "It's not our job." "It's not our fault." "We can't be responsible for everything." "It won't happen again." "Life can't exist without risk." "What's the harm?" "We're not responsible." Let's Lie "I don't know." "We didn't know." "We've never done that." "It has never happened before." "It can't happen again." "We will not give up without a fight." "We have never had to apologize before." "I'm not a crook." "I did not have sex with that woman." Only If You Qualify "I'm not sure if it was an accurate representation." "I'm sorry if . . . " - Any of you were offended. - My words got misinterpreted. - Someone else took my words out of context. - You failed to understand what I said. Blame the Victim "He's a disgruntled former employee." "They didn't get it right." "You cannot believe what they say." "It couldn't have been done by our people." "It's not our problem." "They don't understand our situation and our problems." Pre-Empt Apology Avoidance PR professionals should share these lists with every executive. They need to know that all of these excuses are off limits and will fail. As you hear the new avoidance language, build another list and circulate it immediately to re-inoculate executives against the damage that apology avoidance inevitably causes. Apologies can prevent career-defining moments for very important people. Contact: James E. Lukaszewski is the chairman of The Lukaszewski Group Inc. He can be reached at jel@e911.com.

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