by Steve Adubato, PhD
Saying; “I’m sorry, I take full responsibility,” is often a powerful communication and leadership tool. It is amazing how often corporate executives or top level government leaders either refuse to admit that they were wrong. In 1989 Exxon got it wrong big time, when its CEO Lawrence Rawls refused to apologize for the Valdez oil tanker fiasco. Don Imus might have saved his job and career if he hadn’t waited a full two days to admit that he was wrong and then when he did it, he offered loads of qualifiers.
Finally, President George Bush has had an especially difficult time apologizing for his mistakes, particularly regarding Iraq. All these are examples of poor communication. But a new book entitled, “Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong” by Eric Dezenhall challenges this premise.
Q—What exactly is Dezenhall’s argument regarding apologizing?
A—The author, who was a former top communication advisor to President Ronald Reagan and is now a public relations executive in Washington, cites the pre-trial calls for Martha Stewart to apologize in connection with the insider trading scandal she faced. Dezenhall says, “She couldn’t, because in a court of law, an apology may be interpreted as a judge and jury as an admission of guilt…Would you rather be loved or acquitted?”
Q—What’s wrong with that argument?
A—We’re not talking about a court of law, but rather the court of public opinion. What good is winning a trial by refusing to admit that you made a mistake if in the process you lose all public credibility, not to mention your customers and investor confidence? In business, often your reputation is all you have. If Dezenhall is arguing that not apologizing in a court case can potentially keep you out of jail, he is probably right. However, the communication bar is too low.
Q—In his book, Dezenhall says that “public apologies can come at a very high price” and cites the case of former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey and his august 2004 press conference saying that he “was gay and then resigned when allegations surfaced that he had appointed a purported love interest to a government job.” Doesn’t this prove his point?
A—Dezenhall says while McGreevey’s story went away quickly, the “bad news was that McGreevey was out of a job.” The problem with this argument is that Jim McGreevey waited way too long to apologize. His back was against the wall and his alleged ex-lover may have been blackmailing him and their relationship was about to become public. Further, in McGreevey’s so-called apology, he never specifically said why it was wrong to name Golan Cipel, the love interest in question, to a top homeland security position. His apology was self-serving, “I am a gay American,” and to many seemed disingenuous. What Dezenhall misses is that sometimes apologies don’t work because they are not executed effectively.
Q—So what are the keys to an effective apology?
A—It has to be immediate, unforced, sincere and specific in terms of what exactly you did that was wrong and who specifically has been hurt. Further, it must offer no caveats or explanations. No “I apologize, but…” I understand Eric Dezenhall’s approach of resisting an apology at all costs, however, this technique is very risky. For certain clients facing potential legal consequences, these issues must be considered. Of course an apology must be weighed on many levels, however, in most cases an apology is not a legal admission in the court of law. Conversely, it is a genuine effort to acknowledge that a mistake was made and ultimately, a strong leader takes responsibility for his actions. That’s a hard position to criticize, because last time I checked none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes.