Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just apologize

The ongoing Lisa Raitt saga has given us another PR primer: when a recording of you saying something insensitive comes to light, apologize. Right away.

The Federal Natural Resources Minister has been the target of shots from politicians, reporters and everyday Canadians for a few days following the public release of a private conversation in which she referred to the shortage of medical isotopes as a “sexy” issue, which she hoped to be able to work to her political benefit.

Whatever your political stripes, you have to agree that it was not the Minister’s finest hour. But here’s a shocker: people say and do stupid things. We’ve likely all said things we’ve regretted at some point. When the people saying and doing those stupid things are influential, though, it gets attention – and it should. The question is: from a PR perspective, where do you go from there?

Time and time again (often in the context of extra-marital affairs – think John Edwards, Ted Haggard, Bill Clinton) we see leaders caught misbehaving, and trying to ignore the issue in the hopes it’ll go away. The problem is that it usually doesn’t – so on top of it all, the offender also looks dishonest, sneaky, and arrogant. Minister Raitt’s position on Tuesday spawned countless further media stories about her refusal to apologize and the Tories’ attempts to downplay her regrettable comments.

Depending on your offence, people may be able to understand that you’ve made a mistake; everyone makes mistakes, after all. But if you act as though the hurtful or disrespectful thing you said or did isn’t a big deal, you’re showing a lack of regard for others – which some will perceive as a much deeper personality flaw, more difficult to forgive.

In my professional life I've had occasion to debate with clients about the need to apologize for having “wronged” people, however inadvertently. Their position was that “apologizing is essentially admitting we willfully did something wrong, and that isn’t the case. It was a mistake, and people will just get over it.” The problem with that logic is that it isn’t about us – it's about the people we hurt. Our intentions are irrelevant; we need to acknowledge and apologize (sincerely) for having hurt people, however unintentionally it may have been.

If an embarrassing statement or act comes to light, it’s out. You can’t erase it, and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Your choices are either to act like it’s not a big deal and draw out the agony as outrage grows… or to show humility and apologize right away.

If you’ve acknowledged your error and apologized quickly, there’s not much left to report on. There’s still lots of work ahead to restore your reputation, but at least you’re able to stop fending off reporters and get to work.

A video of Minister Raitt's apology (issued Wednesday) is posted on the National Post website here.

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