“We did make a slight error in judgment.”
This was the response of Thomas Chambers, owner of Chambers Funeral Home and Crematorium in Riverdale, Md., last week, after state officials discovered 40 human bodies piled up like trash in a garage. I’ll spare you the disturbing details.
A public apology is never easy, but “a slight error in judgment” was the best explanation Mr. Chambers could come up with? I doubt the families of his clients, victims actually, would consider this a slight error. I trust they were outraged not only by this egregious act but by the man’s lack of compassion, not to mention his refusal to own up to the seriousness of the offense. As if this weren’t bad enough, he added that the company “would like to stay in business.” Of course the facility’s license was revoked.
This story broke just as I was reading What Were They Thinking? by Steve Adubato, a media analyst and commentator who became an expert on crisis communication following his own public blunder while serving in the New Jersey legislature.
In the book, Adubato examines more than 20 crises involving corporations, government agencies and high-profile individuals exhibiting varying skills in facing the public with a timely and convincing response. He highlights the strategies of those who have handled crises well and he contrasts them with examples of those who, usually for lack of a plan, handled their public crises disastrously.
Throughout my career I have counseled clients who speak in the public realm, whether they are witnesses at a congressional hearing or fielding media questions about an unpopular corporate maneuver. Failure to prepare ahead of the crisis—using carefully chosen words that show sincere acceptance of responsibility and assurance that appropriate corrective measures are underway—can cause any financial loss to be overshadowed by the cost of an unrecoverable loss of personal or professional trust.
On a much smaller scale, I have just had another occasion to question how public apologies are crafted.
As I was preparing this blog entry, my Internet connection failed. I called my provider who said, “I am sorry you are experiencing problems. I show an outage in your area.” This reminded me of the person who stops short of an apology by saying “I am sorry if your feelings were hurt.” It offers a hollow gesture without taking any responsibility.
An hour later, my Internet connection resumed. Then it failed again. I called again and got a different representative who went a bit further: “I apologize.” Okay, that’s better. “But there’s not much we can do.”
I really wanted to give her some tips but resisted. Instead, I asked her if she knew what might have caused the outage.
She said, “No, they don’t like to tell us that.”