The Three Magic Words

“I also applaud the courage of umpire Jim Joyce to address this unfortunate situation honestly and directly.” ~MLB commissioner Bud Selig

Umpire Jim Joyce apologizes


As someone who worked in public relations, and is also a news junkie, I play imaginary consultant any time there’s a press conference, or a big news story.  I am a student of actions, impressions and appearances. 
I imagine what goes on behind closed doors before the press conference and before the first word is uttered.  What are the speech writers trying to convey?  What have the told the speaker about being sincere, what questions to avoid and what questions to take head on. 
Sadly, a lot of today’s public relations has become stone walling, “no comments” here,  and a little bit of “I’m not at liberty to address that” there.  Afraid to be transparent and address the problem head on.  Scared to say, “I’m sorry,” for fear it will show a crack in the shell, weakness or even worse. 
I am a firm believer, that in the public arena, in business, and in your personal life, the best thing you can learn is the importance of saying you’re sorry. 
I’ve been reading The Lawyerist where they posted the other day about how we all make mistakes and we can’t be too proud to admit it when we do.  Case in point and an example when public relations goes right…Umpire Jim Joyce and  Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga. 
Joyce blew a call that cost Galarraga a perfect game.  Companies, publicists, spokespeople and you and I should take note of what happened next because in my book, it is one of the best displays of good public relations I have seen in a while.  Not just public relations in terms of what someone is telling the other to say/do but how you represent yourself in public.  Because honestly, isn’t that all PR is?  Since each of us can’t have a PR consultant, I believe that learning from these examples will help us all do our own personal PR a little better. 
Instead of flying off the handle, Galarraga was sportsmanlike.  He gave a smile and went back to the mound.  You know he was probably just thinking, “You’re kidding me right?!?” and wanted to throw his hands up but he truly handled it with grace.  What I’ve learned is that that type of behavior is contagious. 
After Joyce saw the replay, he apologized.  He didn’t have to do that, but he realized he made a mistake and owned up to it.  Not only is this the right and admirable thing to do but do you see how the stand up behavior of both of these men diffused the situation.  What do you think would’ve happened if Galarraga went bizerk? 

BP CEO Tony Hayward


Compare this to what is happening with the BP oil spill.  

I have been glued to the TV anytime news of this comes up because I’m just fascinated with how BP is handling this. 
In the beginning, I distinctly remember an interview on the Today Show where Ann Curry was interviewing BP’s CEO Tony Hayward.  She told Hayward that she would give him the opportunity to apologize for what had happened.  What did he do…skipped around the question and the apology.  Someone on their legal or PR team must have told him to not apologize or admit they were to blame.  It was an interesting thing to watch as he squirmed around the apology and went on further to say, “I want my life back.”  PR FAIL.
Later, BP released this ad where Hayward apologizes for the spill and vows to make it right.  As the Huffington Post asks, sincere apology or damage control? 
I have no idea what they were telling Tony Hayward to say and do in those first weeks after the oil spill but from the very beginning it set up the whole attitude of the American people toward the oil giant after that.  They felt Hayward and BP as a whole was lying about the effects, stonewalling and too proud to admit they made a mistake and apologize. I feel that will good PR it could have been diffused and avoided setting up a better way to handle this disaster. 
Since, someone got their head on straight and has gotten BP execs out on TV, radio and print sending the right message…one of sincere apology and cooperation.  But the damage had already been done.  It was too late. 
So what can we as PR professionals, lawyers, friends, family members, coworkers and significant others learn from these two examples?  Honesty is the best policy and to NEVER be afraid or too proud to admit you were wrong.  We’re human.  It’s going to happen. 
I absolutely hate when I’m wrong (good thing it doesn’t happen often 😉 ) but it happens.  And when it does, I am quick to apologize and make it right.  In every relationship I’ve had, be it professional or personal, the ability to do that has served me well. It think it’s the ability to let go of pride, which goes against our, or at least my, human nature. It was a hard lesson to learn for me but I’m so thankful I’ve had role models like my parents and professors to show that it is instead the strong thing to do to apologize when you’re wrong.  It shows strength, not weakness.  Not only that but many times when confronting an issue like this head on, it will diffuse a situation instead of letting it fester and become a problem.
What do you think? 

4 thoughts on “The Three Magic Words

  1. Good post Jackie. Personally I think we’re becoming a little obsessed with “I’m sorry.” It was incredible to see Jim Joyce own up to his error and it says a lot about him that he did it so quickly. He could have been escorted from Comerica Park under the cover of darkness and refused to comment. His apology was for Mr. Galarraga, not for me. As for BP, What does an apology from CEO Tony Hayward do for anyone? I just want him to clean up the mess and make sure it never happens again. The fact is, billions of dollars and the future of his company are at stake, so he must be careful what he admits to. I get that. Ann Curry’s insistance on an apology is just silly journalism. That being said, this guy is horrible in front of cameras. I’m not sure what you do about that, since hiring a spokesperson would come across as “hiding.” He’s in a can’t win situation except for one thing: Get it done. Actions speak louder than words Something our president could also keep in mind.

    • I see how you can say we’re a little obsessed with sorry. So many people use it the wrong way and it looses it’s impact. I get that.

      I was talking about a genuine, I or we screwed up and we’re going to make it right. It’s the first step. It’s a commitment. I think it pre-empts action. You’re right, he is at the helm of a huge company and that’s why I think his handlers didn’t want him to admit a mistake and say sorry at first, I just believe that from a pr standpoint, how America relates with him and he relates with America, handling the issue head on from the beginning and owning up to what happened would have gone a long way. He took shortcuts that took and endangered lives as well as our coast and economy. It’s BP’s mistake that they made knowing full well what the risks were.

      Totally agree that action speaks louder than words and you’re right, until we see something done, the words mean absolutely nothing. I think that it’s because most people use “I’m sorry” as a get out of jail free card and think that means they don’t have to clean up the mess, that’s why it’s overused.

      I like these convos 🙂 Loved the comment and you made very valid points. Thanks Curt!

  2. What is it about those three words that make your stomach knot-up? I mean, where in the world did we learn that type of reaction. Then instead of saying, I’m Sorry – most people just acted as if the situation never happened or avoid that person for eternity.

    It’s hard for me to admit when I am wrong, but I am always quick to apologize. I’ve learned through trial and error that getting over that stomach knot and spitting out those words make everything SO much better.

    So Jackie, I am sorry.
    (that’s just for anything I may do in the future the warrants an apology)

  3. Here’s an actual headline Curt will love:
    “Texas Rep. sorry for telling BP exec he’s sorry.”

    Great post, Jackie. I think the bad call apology and the pitcher’s response when it happened were good sportsmanship. (But as a baseball fan I don’t want to see a precedent where umps second guess their calls. That’s for the fans & the color commentators to do. Bad calls happen. I’m not in favor of MLB expanding use of instant reply.)

    From a PR standpoint, I think sincere apologies can be good public relations. Sincere being the operative word. From a human standpoint I think they can be healing. People often want, and need, a public acknowledgement that a wrong was done to them. “Attention must be paid!” as the classic line from Death of Salesman goes. But I agree with Curt that actually doing something to rectify the situation you caused is more important.
    Another apology in the news this week – British Prime Minister apologizes for Bloody Sunday, 40 years after the fact.

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