“It wasn’t a mistake. We followed procedure.” Passing the blame doesn’t cut it when two convicted killers are loose.

The news yesterday that two more Florida prison inmates were in the process of obtaining forged documents ordering their release underscores the need for all prison officials to scrutinize and verify such documents before letting dangerous convicts loose. Of course.

But it raises a much broader issue: In the age of electronic cut-and-paste, how can we trust any signed documents in any walk of life and business? Clearly, the potential for forgery is great. Companies and government institutions alike will need to routinely include a verification step before accepting a signature as valid in any transaction of consequence. Reaching the signatory by phone or in person will seldom be practical. We’re going to need some sort of unique, embedded coding to prove a signed document is valid. Can we get the nation’s techie A-Team on that right away, er, as soon as they are finished fixing the Healthcare.gov website?

killers mistakenly released

Also…for a quick crisis communications lesson learned, let’s go back to the day the original story broke about the two inmates convicted of murder mistakenly released from prison. While the two killers were on the loose somewhere in the nearby communities, causing no small amount of civilian trepidation, Misty Cash, deputy communications director for the Florida Department of Corrections, reassured the public with these immortal words:

“There were court documents that were provided and our department followed the process and procedure that we do for every inmate when we receive documents saying they should be released. It wasn’t a mistake. Nobody forgot to do anything or didn’t do something right. There were forged documents involved.”

Lesson learned: When something has gone terribly amiss causing imminent danger to the community, a spokesperson is ill-advised to stress that IT WASN’T OUR FAULT! The public doesn’t care if you followed the “process and procedure,” Mindy, we just want the bad guys returned to prison and for this to never, ever happen again.  

When the apology falls flat–just ask Paula

Just some of the countless lessons from Paula Deen’s free fall from grace:

  • Do some soul-searching before you apologize, so that you apologize for the right things. Deen’s extensive “apology tour”—on a clumsy and maudlin video released on YouTube (since taken down but widely dissected and parodied) and then another YouTube apology video after she stood up Lauer on the Today Show, and finally the rescheduled  Today Show interview that produced its own dreadful apology—fell flat because Deen didn’t know what she was apologizing for. She asks folks out there to forgive her but comes across as confused and lacking any deeply felt contrition.
  • When asked if you ever used the “n” word (or some other heinous act), don’t respond: “Yes, of course.”  You need to show that you understand what you’ve done is wrong and vow to not repeat the action.  Saying some version of “everybody does it” as an excuse negates the rest of the apology. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Own up to it.
  • Things not to say in your apology: “I is what I is and I’m not changing.” (An unforgettable line from the Today Show interview.) Kind of un-does all that part about being sincerely sorry, don’t you think?
  • Know when to take a public hiatus. After providing one interview in which you sincerely express contrition after some long-soul searching (see above), you make it clear that you plan to drop out of sight for awhile. No more interviews. No more YouTube videos. But note: you can’t drop out of the public eye if what you were apologizing for is still happening, like a massive BP oil spill for example. Then you have to remain available until the end of the crisis.

Real lessons in crisis management: Olive Garden recovers nicely from anti-flag flap

After an initial misstep, Olive Garden corporate has recovered well and looks to be putting an unwelcome controversy behind it.

Yesterday, news broke that an Olive Garden restaurant in Oxford, Alabama, had refused to allow a Kiwanis Club to include their American flag at a banquet there. Eighty-year-old Kiwanis Club member Marti Warren was outraged, “This is not my country. This is not my country I grew up with,” she said. “I was so angry. I felt like I had been slapped in the face.”

Unfortunately, Olive Garden’s first response to the flag flap was weak and only made matters worse. The restaurant chain released a statement aiming to explain away the controversy. After noting that “like all Americans we have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the American flag and everything it symbolizes,” the company then offered this ham-handed explanation that, predictably enough, only fanned the flames: “To be fair to everyone and avoid disrupting the dining experience for all other guests, [the Oxford restaurant is] unable to accommodate flags or banners of any type in the dining room.”

Remember that crisis management is not about winning an argument debate-style. It’s about winning over hearts and minds. Cold, hard facts often don’t effectively counter emotional complaints. And how is this for emotional imagery on the side of the aggrieved Kiwanis: Without a flag at the Kiwanis banquet, Warren said she asked club members to close their eyes and picture the flag waving in the wind as they said the pledge of allegiance.

Soon the internet was abuzz with boycott threats. Conservative-leaning bloggers were quick to impugn the restaurant’s motives in excluding the Star and Stripes. “Far-left Olive Garden,” began one report.

But today is a new day and more seasoned PR pros evidently won out at Olive Garden corporate.

Olive Garden SVP Bill Holmes called Warren yesterday to personally apologize and promised to fly down to Alabama first thing Monday to personally apologize to the Kiwanis Club. Olive garden also revised its statement, with an apology (and not just the “we’re sorry if anyone was offended by our innocent action…” apology all too common these days; see my earlier posts here and here. And he agreed to return to Oxford Nov. 4 to speak at the next Kiwanis Club meeting.

Much better, Olive Garden. Marti Warren, for one, is satisfied. “I feel grateful of all the people who stood with me and that changes were made,” she said.

- Jon Harmon

Was Sanford’s tearful apology way too much?

When is the emotional apology the right move to put scandal behind and to stop a spreading crisis?

I’m thinking of this, of course, because of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford with his tearful apologies this week to his wife and family, his staff and supporters, and to all the people of his state.

Sanford, of course, had much explaining to do after his mysterious disappearance left aides and family in the dark, only to turn out that he’d taken a trip to Argentina to meet up with a woman with whom he had been having an illicit affair. In the less-than-proud tradition of disgraced politicians undone by their hormones, Sanford stood before the cameras and apologized. To his credit, he did not try to justify his actions and he seemed remarkably candid in his remarks.

But did he have to go on for so long? Did we really need so many details? Wouldn’t he have been better off following this simple “Force for Good” advice for coming clean about a mistake: “Be honest. Keep it brief. Get off stage. Move on.”


Others were quick to question whether his apology was the correct move in terms of crisis management.

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, loudly argued against the wisdom of the Sanford apology (and in terms that would have gotten a male op-ed writer in serious trouble):

“Perhaps someday one of these VIPs in trouble will figure out that on these occasions it’s not a great thing to go public looking like a pathetic dolt — the kind of man who would induce instant headache and skin crawling in any woman imagining him as a lover.”

Rabinowitz would have had Sanford make a straight-forward admission of the affair, without apology, capped with this closer:

“So let’s understand this. I plan to straighten my tie, button my jacket .. and go forward to do what I have to do. Life’s complicated, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s work to be done. I’ll have nothing further on this, count on it.”

The long, drawn-out, tearful apology didn’t score well with Cokie Roberts or Sam Donaldson on ABC’s Good Morning America.

“It will sink him,” Roberts said about the apology, not the affair.

Donaldson disparaged Sanford for taking questions from media and answering in agonizing detail. “He’s a cooked goose,” Donaldson said, adding that he gives higher marks to Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who made a brief statement and a quick exit in admitting an extramarital affair earlier this month.

Of course, every situation is unique and it’s always easy for the “experts” to criticize.

One thing is clear. If Sanford wants to keep his job, he needs to keep his head down and work through the issues and privately work with his wife on saving their marriage. No more apologizing; no more details; no further comment even as journalists work to advance the story. (“Who is the mysterious woman in Argentina? How did they meet? etc.)

It’s still might not be enough to overcome his erratic behavior — the sudden disapearance, the phony story about hiking — that had to make voters wonder about his suitabiity to govern.

Fortunately, the public has a short attention span. The sudden death of Michel Jackson has blown all other news off the radar screen. Sanford should make use of the respite and keep quiet.

- Jon Harmon


If You’re Sincere, You’re Still Sorry Three Years Later

Another example of how not to talk to the media … if you’re a newly traded athlete best known for a violent mugging of another player that resulted in a horrific, life-threatening injury.


Before Todd Bertuzzi had even arrived in Detroit after a trade the night before, he spoke by phone to Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press. Albom asked him about the infamous incident in 2004 when Bertuzzi skated up behind Colorado rookie forward Steve Moore and attempted to bait him into a fight in obvious retaliation for a brutal cheap-shot punch Moore had delivered three weeks earlier to one of Bertuzzi’s teammates. Moore broke an unwritten hockey code of manhood by ignoring Bertuzzi and continued to skate up the ice. So Bertuzzi, in furious pursuit, unleashed a brutal sucker punch to the back of Moore’s head. Instantly knocked unconscious, Moore’s limp body was pounded into the ice by Bertuzzi. Then Bertuzzi fell on top of the downed player and proceeded to punch the helpless body. Not exactly a shining example of sportsmanship, even in the physical sport of ice hockey.


Moore was carted from the arena on a stretcher with three broken vertebrae in his neck.   


The shocking brutality of the incident, replayed endlessly on video, created a furor. For a while it looked like Bertuzzi would face criminal charges. As the magnitude of the damage he had wrought set in, Bertuzzi  held a tearful press conference and apologized to Moore and his teammates and family. By all accounts, Bertuzzi was sincere in his regret and genuinely remorseful.


Fast forward three years: Bertuzzi has been traded to the Detroit Red Wings and is asked about the incident for the umpteen millionth time: Does the notoriety bother him? His response:


“There’s nothing you can really do. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a forgotten thing. It’s three years ago. And you would think that people would let it go. But there’s always people in cities that want to hold on and want to criticize and bash you…. It’s something I deal with.”


Uhh … Todd, remember that it was you who was the goon who broke a young man’s neck, ending his career and very nearly killing him. You sound like you think you are the victim here. Pardon us if we need to throw up.


Perhaps what you meant to say was:


“I think about that night all the time. I never intended to injure Steve Moore but lost control in the moment. I’ve apologized to him and to his family, and I regret the pain I caused them. I wish I could undo it all but I can’t. So I’d prefer to talk about this season as I look ahead to the playoffs with my new team.”


One more thing, Todd. Make sure you mean it.


Lesson for corporate executives: if, God forbid, your company is responsible for a human tragedy, saying you’re sorry once isn’t enough. Even if you get tired of hearing the question, remember the victim(s). (Hint: It’s not you.). There is no statute of limitations on sincere sorrow.


- Jon Harmon