We’ve become used to apologies being issued throughout August – usually when it’s too late to be meaningful.
Any refusal to say sorry, whether it’s delayed or missing altogether, naturally grabs headlines.
The aim of this blog is to give you a clear structure for dealing with incidents when they go wrong, respecting the victims of that incident fully.
So let’s start with the Fatal Accident Enquiry into the Glasgow bin lorry tragedy, in which six people died last December when the vehicle careered out of control with an unconscious driver slumped over the wheel.
Driver Harry Clarke has been demonised over the past few weeks of evidence as it’s become clear that he failed to tell the truth to various employers and authorities about blackouts, which had plagued him for decades.
That vilification reached new heights last week when he was asked in the witness box if he would like to say sorry for “the lies” he told.
To apologise for his “lies” could have been self-incriminating, so Mr Clarke refused to apologise.
The news report made uncomfortable viewing.
Several relatives of the six who died walked out at various points of Mr Clarke’s evidence as he refused to answer most questions and refused to offer any apology.
In the same week, the Catholic Church in Scotland was asked to – and immediately did – apologise to victims of child sex abuse, whose abusers were employed by a church, which was meant to protect them.
The McLellan Commission, set up by Scottish bishops after a series of scandals including the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, was led by a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The Commission called for the apology.
Its chair explained in a later radio interview that he felt the Catholic Church would only be believed about its future intentions if it apologised to victims in full.
So let’s untangle all of this.
In our media training courses and presentation skills courses – run largely from our Glasgow studios – we share with clients a Golden Rule for recovering the lost Moral High Ground.
It’s called Regret, Reason, Remedy.
For many companies we’ve worked with over an announcement of redundancies, it would look like this:
“We’re sorry to say that we’re today announcing 100 job losses (Regret)
“We’ve experienced a downturn in business and need to cut our costs accordingly (Reason)
“We’ll continue to do everything to bring in new orders – and to help our colleagues find new jobs elsewhere” (Remedy)
But rather than just on media training courses, we’ve advised companies for 26 years on adopting Regret, Reason, Remedy to do the right thing in difficult circumstances.
Lawyers often stand in our way, strictly forbidding the use of the word “sorry”.
And this has caused robust debate with legal teams as we locked horns over the wording of statements.
On one occasion while we were running an emergency exercise with a client in London, their plant caught fire and emergency services were called.
We advised they put out a statement to the local community, saying they were sorry that black smoke had been billowing out of the factory.
The American owners refused, worried they may be sued.
We lost the argument. The company stayed silent and the local community fumed.
So let’s be clear.
If you say you’re sorry something has happened, you are simply expressing empathy with the victims of the incident or decision.
That is entirely different from saying sorry for causing it to happen.
With the bin lorry crash, that would be admitting criminal liability.
In my view, Mr Clarke is speaking entirely through the filter of legal advice, which is preventing him from empathising with the families.
I’m sure Mr Clarke is deeply sorry that he was unconscious at the wheel of his bin lorry, causing it to career out of control for 19 seconds.
He needed to express that sentiment before taking the witness box, rather than being asked to apologise instead for “his lies”, as it was put.
Mr Clarke could have said this:
“I’m very sorry to have been involved in an accident in which members of your family died (Regret)
“I’ve given my full co-operation to the police in their investigation of the circumstances (Reason)
“While I am unable to answer many questions in the witness box for legal reasons, I will continue to work with the authorities in any way I am able.” (Remedy)
But many lawyers would to avoid any such statement and anger at a “lack of apology” will grow.
The Catholic Church is another matter altogether.
Here, they are admitting liability because the abusers were their employees and some of the abuse took place in their premises.
But the problem with their apology is that they had to be told to say sorry.
Which takes us into new territory.
Are they saying sorry or being sorry?
Because there’s a big difference.
One victim accused the Catholic Church of apologising only to prevent further damage to its reputation.
And that then raises questions about Harry Clarke, the bin lorry driver.
Is he putting legal advice ahead of the very basic need to do the right thing by empathising with the families of those who died?
It would appear so.
One final case study from the world of sport.
Nick Kyrgios is a talented but flawed Australian tennis player.
He is seldom far away from controversies.
The latest is over vile comments he made about the girlfriend of Stanislas Wawrinka, picked up by a mike while he was playing the Swiss opponent.
Reluctant apologies followed.
In a written statement, he expressed “regret” but failed to say “sorry”.
Kyrgios claimed he said sorry to Wawrinka when they met after the match.
The Swiss player denied that.
If you have to apologise regularly, you must be doing lots of things wrong.
If Kyrgios wants to have reporters stop asking if he’s apologised and getting annoyed at them for doing so, he’ll need to put more thought into preventing his headline-grabbing actions and his outbursts.
Bill McFarlan is managing director of media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.
You can view his full profile here.
Photo credit: amateur photography by michel / Foter / CC BY; amateur photography by michel / Foter / CC BY; Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA; Paul Robertson / Foter / CC BY-ND; Carine06 / Foter / CC BY-SA
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