– James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA
Much as I admire Dov Seidman, the founder of LRN, his recent call for an “apology ceasefire” is precisely what self-forgiving, mistake-prone, could-care-less-about-victims executives are looking for: an officially sanctioned get-off-the-hook excuse.
The very things that make us recoil at some of the silly, foolish, naïve and arrogant apology attempts should spur us on to require even more rigor when an empathy/apology strategy is attempted.
There is a technique I’ve developed and have used over the years to actually screen potential crisis clients, including very large, well-known companies and very large, recognizable organizations. Crisis consultants are approached by all kinds of people and organizations looking for ways more to escape the consequences of their bad decisions, deeds, and statements rather than, understand what’s happened, the damage they’ve caused, and to move toward a compassionate, helpful and honorable resolution. That is, of course, until the lawsuits start and the bad headlines explode again, or the FBI shows up.
I call the technique “Seeking Forgiveness.” In fact, when companies and organizations call me, this is the discussion we have initially to give me an indication of whether or not they’re serious about resolving their issues and dealing with the problems they’ve created for victims. It’s also to give anyone who calls a preview of what the community, the public, victims and survivors will ultimately require for the bad news to go away and the reputation restoration process to begin.
Sometimes callers are simply looking for public relations assistance to defer, delay, deny or divert attention from the problems they are currently causing and experiencing. Or worse, they’re actually looking for assistance in demeaning, disrespecting and discrediting victims. I share a forecast of the fate of these perpetrators, too. It’s quite a different list.
A Template for Peace of Mind and Closure
Obtaining forgiveness involves completing the nine step template below. To achieve success in the shortest possible time, these steps must be initiated in the order presented, as quickly as possible. Seeking forgiveness is society’s requirement for relationship, trust, and credibility restoration. Adverse situations remediated faster cost a lot less, are controversial for much shorter periods of time, suffer less litigation, and help the victims and the perpetrators can come to closure more quickly.
Step #1 Candor: Outward recognition, through promptly verbalized public acknowledgement, that a problem exists; that people or groups of people, the environment, or the public trust are affected; and that meaningful steps will be taken to remediate the situation.
Step #2 Extreme Empathy/Apology: Verbalized or written statement of personal regret, remorse, and sorrow, acknowledging personal responsibility, whenever appropriate, for having injured, insulted, failed or wronged another, humbly asking for forgiveness in exchange for more appropriate future behavior and to make amends in return.
Step #3 Explanation (no matter how silly, stupid, or embarrassing the problem-causing error was): Promptly and briefly explain why the problem occurred and the known underlying reasons or behaviors that led to the situation (even if you have only partial early information). Promise to provide more as events unfold.
Step #4 Affirmation: Talk about what you’ve learned from the situation and how it will influence your future behavior. Unconditionally commit to regularly report additional information until it is all out or until no public or victim interest remains.
Step #5 Declaration: Prevent recurrence through a public commitment and discussion of specific, positive steps to be taken to conclusively address the issues, resolve the situation and eliminate the threat.
Step #6 Contrition: The continuing verbalization of regret, empathy, sympathy, even embarrassment. Take appropriate responsibility for having allowed the situation to occur in the first place, whether by omission, commission, accident, or negligence.
Step #7 Consultation: Promptly ask for help and counsel from “victims,” government, the community of origin, independent observers, and even from your opponents. Directly involve and request the participation of those most directly affected to help develop more permanent solutions, more acceptable behaviors, and to design principles and approaches that will preclude similar problems from re-occurring.
Step #8 Commitment: Publicly set your goals at zero. Zero errors, zero defects, zero dumb decisions, and zero problems. Publicly promise that to the best of your ability situations like this will never occur again.
Step #9 Restitution: Find a way to quickly pay the price. Make or require restitution. Go beyond community and victim expectations, and what would be required under normal circumstances to remediate the problem.
What’s the point of all this?
Time to raise the stakes, rather than back away. Time to refuse to be satisfied with the weak, mealy-mouthed, insincere apology. Actions speak louder than words. The Seeking Forgiveness Template puts a structure, definitions and expectations in place for anyone who apologizes. Everyone who creates a problem needs to be on the hook for all nine steps. When the creation of victims is serious and wide-spread, the more this approach satisfies the expectations of victims, survivors, communities, even whole societies.
The Big Dilemma
Calling an “apology ceasefire” only serves the interests of the perpetrators. Firing chief executives and other officials only serves to let them off the hook and is an act of forgiveness and forgetting. In both cases the object is to get it out of the headlines, to get the problem out of our minds, in other words, to forget without an adequate price being paid by those who caused the problems. And therein lies the conundrum. Avoid the nine steps, or pick and choose among them, and you risk a sustained, perhaps permanent reputational, market share and integrity damage.
On the other hand, apologize promptly, deal with the victims effectively and quickly, requires the pain and perhaps even embarrassment, humiliation and irritation of apology. But the impact of apologies is so enormous and powerful that forgiveness and forgetting is almost assured. I define apology as the atomic energy of empathy. Apologies tend to stop litigation, take the energy and heat out of news coverage and help bank the angry fires of victims and survivors.
We know four things for sure:
1. Being silent is a toxic strategy, however long it takes to resolve the victims’ issues. Everything gets worse and stays bad.
2. We know that even the most perfect response, if communicated late, poorly, callously, indifferently, or arrogantly will paint the history and the perception of that perfect response badly forever.
3. The very nature of our communication environments these days means that whatever mistakes are made, whatever hesitations, resistance, or negative behaviors occur, they will be remembered somewhere, literally forever.
4. It’s your destiny; manage it or someone else will do it for you.
The Seeking Forgiveness Template is a thoroughly positive, constructive, and helpful strategy to preempt much of the negativity that can occur in crisis response situations… but the price will still be high, because it should be.