Thursday, October 27, 2011


The Winnipeg Free Press has been reporting this week on a "ground-breaking" event that happened today in Halifax, at the third of seven national Truth and Reconciliation Commission events: University of Manitoba President David Barnard apologized for his university's role in educating perpetrators of the abuse aboriginal children, families and communities suffered under the Indian Residential School System.

Photo and caption from the
University of Manitoba website
Barnard's full statement is published on the university's website, here.

The apology follows others from churches and governments, including an apology on behalf of the federal government from Prime Minister Stephen Harper; but this is the first time a university has stood up and apologized for the indirect role it played. As it is explained in a story in this morning's National Post, "The university itself was not a perpetrator of the tragedy, and its mea culpa stems from having educated the clergy, teachers, and politicians who perpetuated the system."

An apology, or an attempt to profit from the suffering of others?

The National Post story, entitled "University's residential school apology raises eyebrows," questions whether the U of M's apology will be taken in the spirit in which it's meant. In it, Michael Davis, of Vancouver reputation management firm Reputations, suggests the university might be seen to be taking advantage of the tragedy for a gain in its public image.

The National Post story quotes Mr. Davis as saying the university’s connection to the residential school system “seems very tenuous,” and that by making an apology "the school runs the risk of appearing to 'use what was a very serious and tragic history for some sort of gain'.” 

In a separate story in the Winnipeg Free Press this morning, however, Truth and Reconciliation Commission member Marie Wilson says the apology "will be tremendously encouraging to survivors."

How can you know whether your apology will help or hurt?

When an organization has acted badly or in some way hurt people, an apology is the first step in repairing damaged relationships.

When the organization's role in hurting people is indirect, as Mr. Davis points out in the National Post story, there's the potential for motivations to be judged (and possibly, misjudged). 

Regardless of how pure the organization's motives, it's important to do research that will help predict whether audiences are likely to take it in the way it's meant... because, PR issues aside, your objective is not to have your apology inflict further disrespect to a group that's already suffering.

Mr. Barnard provided some background on how the university decided to make the apology, noting in a Winnipeg Free Press story that he "consulted widely on campus among deans, senior administrators, the board of governors and the senate. He has also discussed the university’s plan with Manitoba aboriginal leaders." 

That's good PR.

If you can't know, ask.

You can't ever predict with perfect accuracy how people will react to something; but asking a wide range of opinions from within your stakeholder publics will always help. While there will invariably be people "out there" who will disagree with your actions or question your motives, what matters most is how most of your audiences will view them. 

Statements like Mr. Davis' illustrate the risk in taking a public stand. But if the U of M has done its homework and knows its own audiences will see the apology as the sincere gesture it's meant to be, the apology will (hopefully) be able to help its community take a step toward healing.


  1. Does the research the UofM conducted to see how its apology would be received not suggest the same element of "calculation" that it's trying to avoid?

    Rock, meet hard place (?).

  2. I don't think so. Honestly, don't we all do a degree of "calculation" when we decide how to handle any situation? Our personal decisions are made at a much more limited scale (so don't tend to have audience research involved), but if we consider how others will react when we decide what to do or say, we're essentially doing the same thing, aren't we?

    And if so, does that mean our apologies are insincere? Or might that make them more respectful in the end?

    I think the potential issue here is less about the apology being "calculated" and more about it being disingenuous -- being about "good PR" rather than about acknowledgment and respect. I don't think that's the case, but others might. The U of M took the risk that more of its audiences would see it the way I do; it might have been safer not to say anything at all, but it opted against that choice.

    Thanks for your comment!