It’s the one thing PR pros can’t fake.
Anyone can apologize. But to do it well—to extinguish the fire rather than reignite it—requires the one thing that PR professionals can’t fake: sincerity.
For example, last month saw perhaps the biggest mea culpa in the history of environmentalism
. Mark Lynas, who helped spearhead the movement against genetically modified foods, recanted and switched sides
“I could not have chosen a more counterproductive path,” he confessed to the Oxford Farming Conference. “I now regret it completely.” His declaration was courageous and honest
A few weeks later, The Atlantic apologized
for an advertorial on Scientology. “We screwed up,” the magazine emailed its readers. “It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism—but it has—to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes.” This mea culpa
was characterized by frankness, humor, and transparency
Last week, Maker’s Mark ate crow
for almost diluting its bourbon. “While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand—and you told us in large numbers to change our decision,” the distiller wrote on its website. “You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.” This misstep was praised for its heart, brio, and class
As skillfully as these three apologies buried the immediate issue, none managed to reframe the conversation, to draw our focus to something different, something positive. For this exploit, we turn to Jesse Jackson Jr., who on Wednesday pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds
(specifically, conspiracy, false statements, and mail and wire fraud).
This is serious stuff, requiring a serious statement. Fortunately, Jackson has a brilliant lawyer, who on Friday issued the following apology
on his client’s behalf:
“Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties. Still I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made. To that end I want to offer my sincerest apologies to my family, my friends and all of my supporters for my errors in judgment and while my journey is not yet complete, it my hope that I am remembered for things that I did right.”
Leave aside the grammatical error (“none of us are” should be “none of us is”), as well as the semantic sloppiness (“all of my supporters” should be “all my supporters”) and lack of commas. The statement is succinct, thoughtful, and shrewd—especially when compared with how the congressman blundered his last spin in the crisis chair
. Here’s how Jackson pulled it off:
1. He doesn’t delay his response or downplay the news. Instead, he gets out in front of it. Thus, his statement is included in every news article.
2. He begins with a big picture reflection in which he paints himself as an everyman. He says, in effect, “We all make mistakes.” Who could disagree with that?
3. He doesn’t point fingers or refer to extenuating circumstances. Instead, he embraces his culpability without qualification.
4. He doesn’t dance around the elephant. Instead, he walks straight up to it and apologizes, directly and earnestly.
5. He doesn’t rely on adjectives to make his point. Instead, he writes with nouns.
6. He closes by asking people to remember him for the good he’s done, and refrains from self-indulgently citing examples. This understated, upbeat note thus effectively shifts our final focus.
My only disagreement: Jackson’s misdeeds aren’t mere “errors of judgment,” as he claims. Self-dealing and theft are crimes.
At some point in the near future, you are going to face the need to say, “I’m sorry.” If you offer this apology with genuine sincerity, you’ll transcend the transgression. In a good way, those you offended will remember your cover-up instead of your crime.
If you offer the apology half-heartedly, you’ll be remembered as just another jerk whose cover-up exacerbated the crime.
Some decisions in life are tough. This isn’t one of them.
Jonathan Rick is the president of the Jonathan Rick Group, a digital communications firm in Washington, DC. His ex-girlfriends would allege that he’s better at offering apology advice than applying it to himself. Follow him on Twitter @jrick.