by Steve Adubato, PhD
From a communication perspective, there are so many things wrong with Donald Sterling’s appearance last week on CNN with Anderson Cooper in which he attempted to apologize for his secretly taped, outrageous and racist comments.
There are several lessons that all business professionals can learn from Sterling’s appearance. (Full disclosure: I have appeared numerous times on CNN providing analysis on the Sterling controversy).
When apologizing, do it immediately. In Sterling’s case, he waited too long to publicly apologize. In fact, he refused to apologize after the tape of his racist comments went public. He went silent. Doing this allowed others to create the narrative by talking about him and characterizing him as a racist. The longer you wait to apologize, the less effective it is: It appears you are apologizing only because you have been backed into a corner and you have no other options.
When apologizing, don’t make yourself out to be a victim or blame anyone else. Own your mistakes fully. In Sterling’s case, he tried to minimize his outrageous statements by saying; "Am I entitled to one mistake, am I after 35 years? I mean, I love my league, I love my partners. Am I entitled to one mistake?"
Sterling repeatedly said it was V. Stiviano, the woman who taped him, who kept bringing up African-American men and inferred that she was the one who was the racist. And then, when asked by Cooper if he was set up by Stiviano, Sterling replied, "I was baited."
When you apologize, even if you think someone else contributed to your mistake, you can’t communicate your feelings publicly because it minimizes the value of your apology. Sterling refused to take full responsibility for his actions by implying that it was Stiviano who somehow contributed to him saying what he said.
When apologizing, never bring up anyone or anything else to try to divert attention away from your mistakes. Sterling attacked basketball legend Magic Johnson for no apparent reason other than that V. Stiviano was photographed at a Clippers game with him. Sterling said on CNN, "What kind of guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he goes and catches HIV? Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about?"
Sterling then doubled down in attacking Johnson by saying, "I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. And what does he do for black people? He hasn’t done anything."
One can only imagine that Sterling’s intent was a combination of anger and a misdirected effort to divert attention away from his own crisis. The problem was that his confused and convoluted communication only made his PR crisis worse by attacking Johnson — a respected and well-liked public figure.
When apologizing, one of the worst things you can do is bring up other people or topics. It never works and almost always backfires. All of the communication must be about your mistake and what you plan to do to rectify it. Everything else falls into the communication danger zone.
Sterling stated several times that he had no professional help preparing for this interview. No PR or communication experts and no lawyers. This was abundantly clear.
While these experts don’t guarantee that a high-profile professional will handle a stressful communication situation well, they can help you prepare and potentially execute when the time comes. There is an art to apologizing, and unfortunately for Sterling, it is an art form that he hasn’t come close to mastering.