by Steve Adubato, PhD

People say a picture can be worth a thousand words. Sometimes a symbol can communicate more than that. Consider Prince Harry’s recent public relations faux pas in which he wore a Nazi uniform to a costume party. Sure he is only 20 years old, but he has been in the public eye since he was born. There are few images or symbols that are universally taboo, but the Nazi swastika is one of them. It communicates a picture of millions of innocent Jewish people killed in the Holocaust.

Harry was immediately criticized and the PR folks around him decided that it was best to put out a written apology saying that he was sorry “if he had offended anyone.” For many, that didn’t cut it and Harry was pressured to apologize in public. The media advisors at Buckingham Palace rejected the idea saying that giving into these demands for a televised apology would set an “undesirable precedent.” Actually, it seems like a pretty sound precedent.

Harry needed to apologize in person, and preferably on television. Given such a highly sensitive and visible PR mistake, an apology in print doesn’t get the job done. You have to see a person’s face and listen to his voice to decide whether you think he is sorry or not. It’s amazing how many otherwise media-savvy people don’t get that communicating in print or via technology sometimes falls far short of what is needed.

In the same week Prince Harry was in hot water, Dan Rather and CBS had to deal with a communications fiasco at the network surrounding a much-publicized “60 Minutes” report about George Bush’s National Guard service. As everyone knows, the report was based on less-than-credible documents and very shaky sources. Four producers underneath Rather were either fired or forced to resign after an independent panel investigated the matter.

With over 40 years communicating on network television, Dan Rather should have known that something needed to be said on the air once this report was released. Instead, Rather sent an e-mail to CBS employees accepting no responsibility for the incident but saying that everyone should “learn” from the experience. Rather should have gone on the medium he knows best and communicated that he owns a significant degree of responsibility for the mistakes that were made. As a leader at CBS, and the face of the network news division, it was essential for Rather to appear in person and speak to all those who had questions about his role in this.

The cases of Prince Harry and Dan Rather aren’t about royalty or network news. They are about anyone in a position of responsibility or visibility that must communicate in a clear and candid fashion when mistakes are made. It’s about standing tall and speaking for yourself without hiding behind official spokespersons or impersonal technology.

Of course, it is harder to communicate in this fashion. It is a lot easier to send an e-mail or put out a statement crafted by PR “experts.” But the payoff is so much greater when you apologize in public, particularly if your apology is sincere and you express what you have learned from the incident. However, Dan Rather and Prince Harry join Martha Stewart, Bob Torricelli and countless others including former NY Knicks coach Pat Riley (who resigned via fax) who just didn’t get it right when the pressure was on.

So what does this all mean to you? Well, you don’t have to be a prince, a celebrity newscaster or NBA coach, communicating with class and doing it in person works in any professional arena where things sometimes go wrong. Remember, very often it’s not what happens that matters, it’s what you do after the fact that shapes the impression others have of you.