Guest Post: Weasel Words Scream Insincerity

[Editor’s note: The following guest blog came to us from David Kalson, Partner, Beacon Advisors in reaction to our Feb. 28 newsletter “PwC Steps into La La Land”. If you have thoughts on crisis management and would like to share reach out to erik@bernsteincrisismanagement.com.]

In his Feb. 28th newsletter, Jonathan Bernstein pointed out some valuable crisis management lessons from the way Price Waterhouse Coopers handled communications after its mega-flub on Oscars night.

PwC’s U.S. chairman, Tim Ryan, did indeed employ some effective crisis messaging in his interview the next day with the NY Times, successfully conveying his sincere regret. But PwC’s formal statement of apology undermined both Ryan and, more importantly, the firm’s brand. Here’s the formal statement (which, BTW, is nowhere to be found on their website):

We sincerely apologize to “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture.The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected.

Weasel words in an apology jump out because they often come in passive voice constructs that deemphasize or hide the doer of the action. WHO made the error? WHO gave presenters the wrong envelope? Elves? God? PwC’s deliberately vague language evades responsibility and erodes the crucial brand attribute of integrity that any accounting firm would want to protect.

Being unclear about who’s making the mistakes screams insincerity. It works against an apology’s supposed intent, which is to convey honesty, declare responsibility, calm the waters and make amends. Ducking responsibility with sham sincerity is exactly what you don’t want to do if you expect your apology to be accepted by the victims of your error. The infamous “mistakes were made” construct inflames rather than soothes.

Would it have been more forthright, and hence better crisis management, for PwC to have used the active voice? “PwC sincerely apologizes for our very regrettable error…” Maybe communication pros did urge the company to do so, but, as often is the case, they may have been overruled by company lawyers arguing against any admission of fault. Legalistic concerns of course have legitimacy, but those concerns must be weighed against the damage to brand equity a mealy mouthed apology is likely to provoke.

Even active voice constructions can be weaselly and insincere. Here’s a recent example in a news release issued by Takata after the company reached a settlement agreement in January with the U.S. Department of Justice in relation to its dangerously defective air bags. “Takata deeply regrets the circumstances that have led to this situation and remains fully committed to being part of the solution.”

It’s in active voice, but nevertheless is one of the the most obfuscating sentences ever to ooze out of a boardroom. “…regrets the circumstance that have led to this situation…” would be laughable except for the fact that the “circumstances” of the “situation” were criminal activities of Takata engineers who covered up known defects in their airbags causing fatalities when they exploded.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell in 1946 in his oft-cited essay, “Politics and the English Language.” The dishonesty of murky language that Orwell railed against in the political sphere shows up way too often in corporate apologies. More often than not they antagonize victims, damage the brand and worsen the crisis.

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