The PR power of ‘I’m sorry’ – Maria Miller and how not to do an apology

sorry

Surely Maria Miller must have realised her first attempt at an apology had spectacularly backfired?

It’s probably why the Culture Secretary issued a new one – this time much more contrite and directly to her constituents via the Basingstoke Gazette.

Her second attempt was littered with phrases like “I’m devastated”, “I’ve let people down” and “I have always sought to do the best job that I can”. I can’t help but wonder why she didn’t do this the first time round.

Her first apology couldn’t have been any more different. Widely ridiculed for its lack of sincerity, it lasted just 32 seconds and left many commentators cold – you’ve got to read political sketch writer Quentin Letts’ hilarious account of proceedings.

The golden rule of crisis communications is to deploy the 3 R’s – Regret, Reason and Recovery. But it has to be done properly and, all too often, people get the regret bit wrong. The key to a successful apology is authenticity.

I’ve been reading a great blog by Heather Campbell about this, with fab case studies of organisations who got it right – think Apple and FedEx- and those who got it wrong – remember the big BP oil spill?

So, if a good apology is a PR no brainer – why do so many people get it wrong?

There is an excellent article in Psychology Today on the art of apology – which tracks human nature and how pride and the fear of weakness, and also admission of guilt, gets in the way of a good grovel.

It’s understandable. If you crash your car, you’re encouraged not to apologise in case you affect your insurance. Saying sorry is also tantamount to admission of guilt in a court of law.

But in terms of restoring relationships and fixing mistakes, people respond kindly to an apology if they sense a genuine heart and it can make a negative situation have a more positive outcome.

So why did Maria Miller’s apology leave people cold?

Perhaps it was because she was only ordered to repay £5,800 of her expenses over-claim – not the £45,000 she had been originally been called to pay back by the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards. Maybe, on a personal level, she felt exonerated. Certainly, her allies are furious at the lack of support she has received, claiming a media witch hunt.

But, let’s not forget that the Tory MP was ordered to apologise for her “attitude” and handling of the inquiry. She had made a mistake with her expenses claims – whether intentional or not.

And there’s no doubt about it, the Culture Secretary is in crisis mode right now – hoping against hope that her latest apology can restore the damage done by her first.

Will she survive past Easter?

Who knows – but she must realise now that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it – and that seemingly simple fact is often the difference between a PR success and PR fail.

 

Update:

And lo, it came to pass! Maria Miller resigned this morning. She had become the story and in her own words “a distraction from the vital work this government was doing”. Her bungled apology was, no doubt, a major factor in fanning the flames. The three R’s of crisis communications (regret, reason and recovery) sadly lacking in her case.

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