Crisis Management: Sometimes It Is Best To Simply Say, “I’m Sorry!”: Crisis response
The following is from the archives, but still holds true today. As you read this, remember – in these days of more frequent apologies – that right actions must accompany right words…..
Let’s learn a business lesson from “Moses.” I am talking of the late actor Charlton Heston of The Ten Commandments fame.
Several years ago Heston apologized to 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace! It was a stunner at the time. A major public figure apologizing to a reporter.
Heston – who took occasional heat as then-president of the National Rifle Association – launched a pre-emptive strike at CBS. He criticized the network for an impending Wallace profile of him before the segment had aired and before Heston himself had seen it. Anticipating a hatchet job, Heston wrote in Guns & Ammo magazine that the CBS News show was guilty of “SWAT-team journalism” and “character assassination.”
Bad move! Once Heston saw the Mike Wallace report Heston knew he’d jumped the gun. He quickly made amends by writing Wallace, “It’s an accurate segment, just as you told me… It seems ironic that at this stage of my life I have to be reminded that it’s wiser to critique a work after you’ve seen it. I’m sorry.”
Wallace called the Heston apology “a classy thing to do.”
Now, contemplate this. In the wake of the apology, what is your opinion of Heston and Wallace? Hasn’t Heston’s contrition elevated your respect for both men? Aren’t you inclined to believe that Mike Wallace is more than just a public executioner and Charlton Heston more than a conservative ideologue?
Now let me tell you of another apology in the media, one made years ago to considerable effect in our area. I have written about this case before because it has so many lessons it, and the power of apology is yet another that grows out of the experience.
I witnessed this mea culpa while I was a reporter “closing in for the kill” on a public official I believed to be engaged in wrongdoing.
It was during the mid-1970’s when the late Emery Green headed Greensboro’s Redevelopment Commission. As I poked around the commission while covering the local government news beat, I discovered that some bids for redevelopment work had been mishandled or botched. I recall that the discrepancies were not monumental, but did involve record-keeping failures and disrupted work at taxpayer expense. Quite confident that I had caught Green’s group in an embarrassing mistake, I “ambushed” Green – young reporters love to emulate Mike Wallace – as Green walked down the steps of a public building downtown. With a photographer recording the encounter, I thrust a microphone in Green’s face, recited the litany of bid failures I had discovered, and challenged Green to explain the discrepancies. I believed I had cornered him.
Then, with a single stroke of astonishing sincerity, Emery Green gently swept aside my allegations, the potentially inflammatory story, and me.
He said something to this effect about my accusations. “Rick, you are absolutely correct. We have indeed made the serious mistakes that you mention. We should not have done that. The public must be able to trust that we will do the right thing, and will do our best. We have failed to do so, and I apologize. I am sorry for these errors. I will make sure we correct them and restore the public’s confidence in us.”
Green’s immediate confession flabbergasted me. I was so cocky and confident while on my reporter’s “mission from God” that I was unprepared for this honest, humble, straightforward apology. I remember a sinking feeling at the time, a sense that my hard-hitting story was disintegrating.
Green’s penitent regretful comments gutted the impact of the report. My scoop sank from view like a stone. No surprise there. Why should citizens be angry with someone who accepts blame and fixes mistakes? There was no outcry, no public interest in my story. Green’s quick confession defused concern before it could take hold.
Months later, Emery Green thanked me for allowing him to admit his guilt and ask forgiveness. He told me how friends and even strangers approached him, shook his hand, and congratulated him for forthrightness, repentance, and sincerity. He seemed genuinely surprised – and delighted – by the goodwill that his statements engendered. I never did ask Green what prompted his contrition. Whatever his motivation, his was most certainly a bold stroke.
Charlton Heston and Emery Green both did something that we ourselves may find hard to do in a crisis, particularly with so many litigation-prone people around. Heston and Green speedily and uncalculatedly (as best I can tell) took ownership of a problem, said they were sorry, and moved on. The media tide receded. There was no storm of controversy. My experience – and probably yours – is that people want to forgive those who are genuinely remorseful, and they like to grant second chances. When we examine our own lives and think about the bone-headed mistakes we have made, it is self-cleansing to pardon others for sins that may or may not resemble those for which we feel guilty.
I do not suggest that companies and institutions automatically apologize when a crisis envelops them. However, two important crisis resolution principles are “Get It Over With” and “Don’t Make It Worse.” Sometimes an honest “I’m sorry” accomplishes both with a rifle shot of clarity. I invite you to consider it a potential life preserver for a business in danger of being swept away in a media storm.