Art of the Apology

Sometimes we do dumb things because we’re not perfect.

Admitting a mistake is never easy. Perhaps that is why so many people fumble the apology.

A well-known case in Nashville centered around Walt Baker, the former CEO of both the Tennessee Hospitality Association and Greater Nashville Hospitality Association. Baker also was a partner at Mercatus Communications, a local PR firm.

He sent a regrettable e-mail about Michelle Obama — one of those e-mail forwards most people delete — to about a dozen friends. The friends, in this case, turned out to be lobbyists, community leaders, and a few journalists.

When the face of Nashville’s hospitality industry sends a decidedly unfriendly e-mail to reporters, other people are going to hear about it. A local blog published a copy of the e-mail, which went viral in 24 hours.

Baker’s response illustrates the results of not knowing how to apologize effectively.

Mistake #1: Misdirection

Baker’s first response when asked about the e-mail was that it was a “joke among friends” and that the incident was not news. Trying to direct attention elsewhere — a.k.a. spinning — is a common mistake. And it never works.

There are two problems with this approach. The first is that people you’re trying to “spin” often have the incriminating information and can form their own opinions. Think about forming your response as if the target audience had all the evidence in hand.

The second problem is that the offender doesn’t have the right to decide what is and what isn’t news. Reporters and editors decide what’s news to them. Trying to deflect attention only convinces them they have a good story.

Mistake #2: Rationalization

Baker’s second mistake was trying to explain how his lapse in judgment occurred. It’s easy to convince ourselves that if everyone understood what we thinking when we made the mistake, then they would forgive us.

The truth is the opposite. Here’s the order of things the offended parties care about:

  1. What happened
  2. What you are going to do now
  3. What you were thinking when you did something stupid is a distant third — and by distant third we mean non-existent.

The Art of the Apology

Aside from turning back time, the only thing left to do is apologize well.

Public apologies shouldn’t be complicated. If you ever have to apologize after doing something really, really stupid, remember these three things:

Say you’re sorry. First. And immediately.

Don’t offer a conditional apology. You’ve failed if your apology contains the word if. “I’m really sorry if I offended anyone” is actually insulting to the people involved. People are obviously offended, because you are apologizing for something.

Promise to be accountable. Accountability is your only salvation from a bad situation. The promise to be accountable signals that you understand the gravity of the mistake and would like an opportunity to plead your case.

Putting it all together, a good apology sounds like:

 

“I’m sorry for [insert offense]. I apologize to everyone I offended. I understand and accept there will be consequences for my actions. I hope to meet with [person or organization deciding consequences] soon to express my regret and understand how I can make amends.”

 

By all accounts, Walt Baker is a good person. There’s no telling what might have happened if he followed our advice. Within 48 hours, he lost lucrative contracts with both hospitality associations and  HYPERLINK “http://nashville.bizjournals.com/nashville/stories/2010/03/08/daily3.html” was terminated as CEO.

 

We think he would have had a much better chance of keeping his job if he came out right away as sincerely contrite and left it at that.

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