Media and Crisis Management
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Media and Crisis Management

The Power of Apology

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: The Power of ApologyCrisis response

Spin control has devalued words. Nevertheless, sometimes – sometimes – heartfelt comment can still move an audience and perhaps bridge controversy.

A handful of such words gave me pause as I listened to an interview with two catholic priests on National Public Radio. With the U.S. church being pummeled for snail’s-pace response to decades of priest abuse of children, these few sentences conveyed a quality I had not heard before, and they foreshadowed a change in position by the church that would come with the Pope in 2008.  Until these comments, precious little was said of this caliber, in my opinion.

The priests explained how the scandal was affecting their parishes in California and Pennsylvania, and what they were doing to protect and reassure their congregants. The specific words, the transforming words came when reporter Susan Stamberg asked for final comments.

The Rev. Lou Vallone of the Church of St. Mary of the Mount in Pittsburgh offered these:

“I would like to apologize to the victims, the families, and all that have been hurt by these actions. I would like to make a formal act of contrition on behalf of my church, my brother priests, to all who have been offended by this. I don’t think that we can express our sorrow enough to those who have been harmed by these actions.”

Days later those words remained with me. It was the first time I had personally heard a church official express remorse so persuasively. Combined with Father Vallone’s earlier commitment to right the wrongs, his apology had weight, visceral impact. I felt less cynical toward the church’s halting efforts to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. I cannot remember the last time I heard any spokesperson communicate regret so convincingly.

So what is the lesson for the rest of us? It is that sometimes words can indeed transcend spin control. Let’s look at how and under what circumstances.

Action still speaks louder than words. Generally speaking, despite the success of Father Vallone, I recommend that you not rely solely on public remarks. Successful crisis management rests on doing the right thing, which, in turn, gives you ammunition to say the right thing. Put another way, don’t just talk, do something! Action speaks loudest. If you stumble, you cannot paper over error with a few well-chosen comments. Enron, Arthur Andersen, Firestone, and the U.S. Catholic Church were slow to act to fix problems and protect themselves. And yet….

Truthful words spoken from the heart can still communicate worlds. For all the remediation needed by the Catholic Church, we cannot overlook the value of Father Vallone’s contrition. Such unambiguous, unqualified apology can soften hard hearts and heal wounds.

This means that if you or your company has stumbled, I believe that you can communicate that you are sorry, will make amends, will fix what is broken, and can be trusted. However – and this is important – your words must come from the authentic you, the unalloyed you, the human you, the compassionate you, the you who knows what’s wrong is wrong, and what’s right is right.

Broadcast news may be the best medium for conveying this. On television, people can look into your eyes. On radio, as with the priests, you can listen to the tone of voice. Through these electronic media we the people can detect authenticity in ways that might escape us in print. After all, following millennia of reading body language and vocal nuance to discern friend from foe, we homo sapiens are good at it. Through broadcast news – as long as it is not a 6-second sound bite – we can usually separate the genuine from the artificial.

So, when in trouble, do the right thing. But if you want to truly get the public on your side, there is nothing quite like an expression of humanity communicated with conviction and a resolve to do what is right. The rest of us will be able to tell if you are faking it.

Father Vallone was not.

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