The matriarch of manners, Emily Post, was amazingly prescient when offering her views almost a century ago in her book, “Etiquette.”
This quote of hers, for instance, is perfectly relevant today: “Nothing is less important than which fork you use. Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.”
Many PR crises are created, or made worse, when someone in the public eye disregards basic rules of etiquette. If you think that sounds quaint, look at these examples. Then pass this post along to the executives or clients who handle press calls, address media conferences, or speak in front of cameras. (Oh, and warn them to expect that the camera will be rolling and their microphone will be live—always!)
1. Show responsibility. Here’s a classic way to tell when someone is breaking this rule: Just listen for sentences missing specific doers, names, or the active voice. “Mistakes were made.” “Laws were broken.” Well, by whom?
This rule can also get cast aside when apologies veer off track.
Take, for instance, Paula Deen’s interview with Matt Lauer on “Today” on June 26. It followed widespread outrage about insensitive statements she’d made while being deposed in a lawsuit against her. This link has the video and a transcript:
Lauer: “You were asked whether using the N-word in telling a joke was hurtful. And you said, quote:
‘I don’t know. Most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. I didn’t make up the jokes. They usually target, though, a group. I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.’
Lauer: “Do you have any doubt in your mind that African-Americans are offended by the N-word?”
Deen: “I don’t know, Matt. I have asked myself that so many times. Because it’s very distressing for me to go into my kitchen and I hear what these young people are callin’ each other. It’s very, very distressing. It’s very distressing for me, because I think that for this problem to be worked on, that these young people are gonna have to take control and start showin’ respect for each other and not throwin’ that word at each other. That—it is—it makes my skin crawl.”
Deen evades answering Lauer’s question about whether she knows if that slur offends African-Americans. Instead, she portrays herself as a victim. “That word,” she says, causes her distress. It makes her skin crawl.
Well, in her restaurants, she’s the boss. She sets the tone of the culture within her kitchens. As the boss, she’s also responsible for dealing with inappropriate behavior if she becomes aware of it.
Blaming others as part of an apology is never going to sound responsible, because it’s not.
2. Use tact. This slip-up happens sometimes when an apology that starts off great spills into areas it really shouldn’t.
A perfect example arrived in my mail yesterday. One of our monthly bank statements somehow got mangled in a U.S. Postal Service machine. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it had been resealed in a larger envelope that had an apology on the back for ruining our mail. I wasn’t expecting that level of service, so I was impressed—until I kept reading.
The tone of the note changed. It told me what I needed to do to help the Postal Service do its job. It scolded me to make sure to place in “the mail stream” materials that aren’t damaged or addressed incorrectly.
Wait a minute! Neither I, nor my bank, had a role in the Postal Service’s nearly shredding this letter. Why ruin a positive customer service move by following the apology with a finger wag and a mini-lecture?
3. Express empathy. No, it’s not about you. Especially so when you’re trying to make amends or show sensitivity.
The worst violation, in my memory, of this rule was committed by Tony Hayward, former CEO of the global oil giant BP. He was speaking to the press weeks after the Deeperwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, killing 11 people, and then almost 5 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days.
Crisis communicators everywhere have likely memorized these infamous 17 words of Hayward’s—which, incredibly, he uttered just after apologizing:
“There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”
4. Be gracious. Instead of a showing a misstep, this example is an absolute master class in graciousness.
Andy Murray fought valiantly last year to try to become the first British male champion at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.
Murray advanced to the championship match, but he lost to Roger Federer.
If you missed it a year ago, you’ve got to watch these remarks he made right after that match. Keep in mind that he was just 25 years old at the time. He may not have won the match, but he did win fans.
And in case you also missed the news this past weekend, Murray was back at the Wimbledon final in 2013, this time winning more than just fans in his straight-sets victory over top-ranked Novak Djokovic for the championship.
5. Show sincerity. Any mea culpa that includes, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” is a big neon sign of insincerity—and everybody, except the person uttering that phrase, knows it.
6. Don’t be late. Many PR blunders would be prevented or contained if a straightforward correction, explanation, or apology just came sooner. Kickstarter recently handled an instance of this exceptionally well. It’s a case in which, when executed with the right tone, a swift and direct statement apologizing for a mistake can actually lead to more credibility and more fans.
7. Be honest. Stretching the meaning of words to justify something isn’t clever or creative. It’s lying. This clip of former President Bill Clinton insisting what he did (or, as he says here, didn’t do) with Monica Lewinsky is really worth hours of training in crisis communication for leaders.
The fallout when the truth comes out, later—and it always does—is many times more radioactive.
These seven rules are broad, but keeping them in mind should help PR pros—as well as the clients and leaders they coach—in countless situations. The consequences of not following them can be huge.
After all, the way the person in charge initially handles an issue or event largely determines whether it becomes a public relations nightmare or just scrolls down the news feed without attracting scary headlines.
Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Sydney, Australia, before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. You can read Becky’s blog Framing What Works.