[Editor’s note: The following article by Chris Lukach was originally published in the Philly Ad News January edition. It shares an interesting account of a problem many crisis management pros encounter, along with a much-needed wakeup call for communicators everywhere. Enjoy!]
OUTLOOK 2019: TOWARD AN ACTIVE, ACCOUNTABLE APOLOGY
By Chris Lukach, APR
“I already told them I’m sorry.”
I sat across the table from the high-profile and embattled public figure. Taken to task in the media for a series of purported failings, this figure ultimately relented and issued, via written statement, a begrudging apology. I was brought in to lend some outside expertise to the strategy. A few minutes into the discussion, we explored a town hall meeting from a few nights earlier:
“I already told them I’m sorry, and that’s what I keep telling them. Go check my statement – it’s all there!”
The expression of contrition was sincere. But to this community leader, the expression felt forced … as if it was extracted from him against his will and only after a fight. Without a doubt, recent antagonistic exchanges with media ratcheted up his anguish, making him feel more guarded and defensive.
Most apologies don’t come easily. We say the unsayable – we acknowledge our failings – often only after intense external pressure or force of will. Then, after we’ve checked the big red box, we move to self-congratulation and, next, to defensiveness: “I already told them I’m sorry.”
We fear that repeating our apology somehow compounds our guilt of fault. We pay no mind to whether we’ve convinced our audience, or whether our contrition actually is making an impact. Too quickly, we blame the individuals who deserve the apology for simply not having heard it. We miss the point.
“Well,” I asked. “Are you still sorry?”
“Of course. I care deeply about this,” he said.
“Then there’s your message.”
Cut to three weeks later. I’m sitting across the table from another high-profile figure in a similar position. Different setting, different state, but an eerily similar situation:
“I already told them,” the individual across the table said, “‘mistakes were made.’”
Nothing weakens “I’m sorry” quite like passive voice.
In the grammarian’s handbook, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White note that in trying to make any passively constructed sentence more concise, we omit the necessary clause, “by me.” In doing so, we make our sentence indefinite. “Is it the writer or some undisclosed person,” ask Strunk and White, who committed the offense?
There is no such thing as an indefinite apology. Apologies require not only an acknowledgement of the act or omission, they require accountability; they require remorse.
Some individuals use passive voice to consciously duck accountability; others are unconscious. But the speaker in my nonspecific-yet-very-real scenario simply couldn’t bear to let the words leave his lips: “I’m sorry.”
I know this is supposed to be an Outlook 2019 piece, and I know that my words are more plea than prediction. But I just can’t get these true, too-often-replicated interactions out of my head.
Thinking critically, these individuals – savvy communicators within their circles of influence – must know that they can’t possibly express true contrition and compassion the way they did. Bright spotlights – media pressure and public shaming – cloud our better judgements.
It has to stop.
In 2019, just as in every recent year that came before it, there inevitably will be apology tours … attempts to refill an individual’s or organization’s bank of goodwill.
Do it compassionately. Do it sincerely. Take ownership. Embrace repetition. Stay disciplined.
Do it better.
Chris Lukach, APR, is president of AKCG – Public Relations Counselors. AKCG is the Philadelphia office of IPREX, the International Public Relations Exchange.