The Art of Apology

OK, so I’m on record as saying that apologies are over-used in PR.  That they’re too frequently the staple recommendation of spineless ‘tofu traders’. And that, as a result, the exercise of public apology is becoming hollow and (literally) incredible.

But I’m also on record as saying that a sincere apology can and does have its place.

A raft of apologies could and should have been made a whole lot earlier and a whole bunch better this week. I’m speaking, of course, about the Paul Henry affair (links here and here for anyone in the outside world who won’t have a clue what I’m on about.)

Much has been written over the past few days about the sorry saga and the various apologies that have started to emerge. From my perspective over here in the cheap seats, a couple of key points have been reinforced.

Do it right, first time. The classic mistake we saw here was the escalating apology, guaranteed only to eliminate any perception of sincerity or conviction from the mind of the audience.

Paul Henry initially refused to acknowledge that he’d been out of order and was quoted widely defending his comments. A few hours later TVNZ put out a statement in his name that concluded with the line: “If my comments have personally offended Sir Anand, I regret it deeply.” The blogosphere erupted with the observation that this was a typical Henry ‘non-apology’ format – shifting blame to the target of his jibes for being so thin-skinned as to take offense.

Take Three was an altogether more substantial affair, broadcast on ‘Breakfast’ the following day.

This rolling escalation – from denial through to full apology – paints a picture of insincerity which doesn’t escape the public. As ever, the first reaction is deemed the most sincere, with anything that follows appearing fake, flimsy and forced.

Words count. This soon became apparent with TVNZ’s written statement in Henry’s name and the fact that it was deemed so widely a ‘non-apology’. So it was amazing that the more substantial broadcast item repeated the fudging.

Media trainer Janet Wilson describes Take Three as “more genuine, heartfelt, and self-deprecating.” I disagree.

“I’m sincerely sorry if I seemed disrespectful to him” should have been “I’m sincerely sorry that I was so disrespectful to him”. “I certainly didn’t intend to sound racist” should have been “what I said was racist, aimed at raising a cheap laugh, but in no way reflects my real views”.

And then there was: “I will never apologise for causing outrage.” Well, then why the apology? That just negated everything that came beforehand, and what followed – the bit about “I will, and do, apologise sincerely for causing real hurt and upset to anyone, no matter what their background, who works to make this country a better country…”

Finally there was that little ‘self-deprecating’ bit about being “at least half … gypo”.  [Sub-text: “See, you lot of hysterical pansies: I can take the mick out of myself so why can’t you take a joke?”]

The whole thing just shrieked: “I’m apologising because my job’s on the line here, but I still think this is all a fuss about nothing.”

Do it quickly. Janet Wilson says the broadcast apology “should cauterize the wound and ultimately kill the irrational debate.” My view is that if the debate does subside now it’ll be only because everybody’s so incredibly bored by it. The damage has been done.  The thing has bled to death – any cauterizing should have happened before lunch on the day of the deed.

Apologise to the right people. All part of a sincere and fulsome apology. In this case, it wasn’t just the GG to whom he should have apologised. He would have prevented a lot of momentum building, taken a lot of heat out of the debate and demonstrated a great deal more sincerity had he apologised to New Zealand’s immigrant community as well as to the Governor General. As it was, he shimmied adroitly around the issue in the broadcast version.

Share the apology. TVNZ has not come out of this well at all.  From its much-delayed response to the eventual crass statement implying that most New Zealanders don’t consider people of Asian origin as real Kiwis, it has stumbled at every hurdle. The spotlight is now on the state broadcaster – a fulsome apology early on for its part in the affair would have helped dim some of the glare. It’s too late now.

Finally, add a personal touch. Sir Anand has been at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi throughout this debacle. He’s reported today as saying he hasn’t heard personally from either Paul Henry or TVNZ.  What?? I’m not suggesting that the Board of TVNZ should have flown over to grovel at his feet.  But a telephone call might have been nice…

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