Admitting you messed up and hurt someone or something is one of the biggest dilemmas in crisis communication. Your lawyers are screaming you can’t do it because its an admission of guilt and will kill you in court. The public is thinking–let’s see what these folks are made of. They messed up and now they won’t accept responsibility or are trying to blame someone else. The media, of course, plays the blame game right from the start and any attempt to duck it almost automatically assures the black hat treatment.
That’s why it is so refreshing to see when the legal concerns are brushed aside and someone just comes out and says, yep, we screwed up and we are really sorry.
That’s the story that is told by Dave Statter of Statter911 about Benton County, Washington, Public Utilities District. A young firefighter almost lost his life because linemen from the district checked the scene, didn’t see a live line, and cleared it for firefighters to enter. The firefighter went into ventricular fibrillation but was rescued by his fellow firefighters and is fine.
I’m guessing (and I certainly hope) that this firefighter understands that the linemen and the District are very sorry, that mistakes happen. But the sad part about a story like this is that he is likely already being contacted by plaintiff’s attorneys with all kinds of promises about how much they can get him for this accident. The same plaintiff’s attorneys who for years on end have supported candidates who fight tooth and nail to prevent legal reforms that would enable agencies and organizations and doctors to apologize when mistakes are made and not have the apology used against them in court. British Columbia has such a law, some states (Colorado I believe) has a law relating to medical malpractice, and I wish it could be the law of the land.
Would make seeing this kind of apology a lot more common. But, I applaud Benton County for doing the right thing and sincerely hope they do not have to pay for it in court.
Apologizing has become one of the standard practices of crisis communication and reputation management. The problem is, they are all starting to sound alike. “We deeply regret the impact this event is having on our valued [whatevers].”
Johnson & Johnson had a rather rough 2010 with millions of products recalled including infant Tylenol. Then in January, 2011 its popular ob tampons quietly disappeared from shelves. The products loyal fans went nuts on social media and J&J, without apparently explaining the reasons for pulling the product, decided to bring it back.
I suspect that their marketing and public affairs staff got a little tired of the standard apology that they had to drag out over and over with the recalls. So they got creative, and in the process I think have set the standard for apologies.
Here is their apology–turn up your speakers and make sure you put in your first name.
I’ve always believed when you screw up you should say you’re sorry. Forgiveness is usually generously given in light of a completely sincere acceptance of responsibility and repentance. When I ran for state senate in 2004 one of my key goals was to improve access to doctors in our state by working to change the medical malpractice legal system, and one policy I wanted to work hard to implement was the ability for doctors and hospitals to say they are sorry without such a statement being held against them legally. Such measures are in place in states like Colorado I believe and have been proven to be effective in reducing lawsuits and associated costs.
This article from New York Times suggests that this message is getting around–slowly and over the objections of trial attorneys. Here is strong evidence of the economic value of saying your sorry. Trial lawyers as a group would be well advised to change their tune and support this effort if they do not want to be perceived as caring only about their ability to take cases to court and win big settlements.
But there is more than economic value at stake here–there is moral value as well. How would you feel as a doctor knowing you had made a big mistake and caused a lot of pain and cost to the patient. Your sorrow in making that mistake would be compounded many times over by having to follow the policy of denial and defense. Yet that is the position we have put doctors and hospital administrators in. Repentance is cathartic, healing and restorative–especially when accompanied by forgiveness on the other end. We have been preventing those in the caring professions from experiencing this because–sorry I have to say this, because of trial lawyers’ greed.
The lesson for CEOs and crisis communicators ought to be clear. Your lawyer’s understandable first instinct when something seriously has gone wrong and your organization is responsible is to deny and defend. But if people or the public good has been harmed, the very best approach is to admit responsibility, communicate sorrow and regret, demonstrate you are painfully aware of the pain this has caused others, explain how you will do better, and ask for forgiveness. It’s good for your soul. It’s the best thing for your organization’s reputation and trust level. And, as this article demonstrates, it’s likely to best for your bottom line too.