Serving Up Different Flavors Of Humble Pie

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Lately the world has served up some delicious case study fodder to us PR folks to add to our “Apologies 101” workshop materials. To err is human, but to admit one’s faults in the hot lights of TV cameras requires a little finesse, a lot of sincerity and absolutely all the facts laid out on the table. Two such apologies this week made big headlines – on ridiculously different scales mind you, but both led to the same PR lesson: you can’t fake the truth.

The apology for an apology

Frankly, I was little disappointed that it took the media a few days to catch on to BP chief Tony Hayward’s cringe-worthy “I want my life back” line in the midst of his formal apology to the world on Sunday. Thanks to the Internet, we eventually woke up after the long holiday weekend and let the blog mud fly, which brought us Wednesday’s apology for the apology. Unfortunately for Hayward, this second apology got more coverage than the original, which ironically was intended to showcase him gracefully falling on his sword.

Part of me kind of sympathizes with him: in his own mind, I think he thought he was sincerely communicating his dedication to fixing the problem, not whining about his loss of “me time.” But when you’re in a position of such power, it’s only natural that your view of reality becomes less grounded and more self involved, and his words seemed to unconsciously reflect that. His intention may have been in the right place, but his perspective was wrong. At the start, BP ‘s public statements positioned the spill as something being done to them rather than something that they did to others. Though he’s changed his tune since, he picked quite an inopportune moment to let one of those leftover repressed feelings fall out of his mouth.

Now as they try to recover with more aggressive displays of humility, we are left to wonder what other thoughts remain hidden from our view. Some of the intense scrutiny could have been avoided if they had completely owned up from the start. At the very least, the better-late-than-never apology tour is starting to hit on the right tone to end out the week, but with the public’s trust betrayed one too many times, the campaign won’t mean much of anything without corresponding action to back it up.

Playing it safe                                         

Moving to a much less serious playing field, we have the case of poor umpire Jim Joyce.

With the Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Armando Gallaraga just one out away from closing out an ultra-rare perfect game Wednesday night, Joyce made one of the biggest botched calls in Major League Baseball. What should have been the final out was deemed safe, and history was denied by baseball’s universally despised authority figure. CNN repeatedly looped the footage, slo-mo style, all yesterday morning even more than the BP Oil Spill Cam, and that’s saying something right there.

There's no crying in baseball, unless your Jim Joyce and you botch a perfect game.

Kill the ump,” right? But why then are we giving Joyce what is amounting to a big national hug this morning?  Because he hit all the right notes in his response minutes after the game: immediately admitting he was wrong (which you never hear from an ump); making no excuses and expressing his heartfelt remorse in robbing Gallaraga of his once-in-a-lifetime moment. You really felt for the guy, maybe even more so than you did for Gallaraga.

But ok, apologizing for screwing up a baseball call is light years away from apologizing for the worst environmental disaster in US history. So sure, this comparison is undeniably unfair. But there’s also no denying that both men faced a career-changing fork in the road in front of the whole country. One chose to slip into defend and protect mode, and the other immediately threw himself at the mercy of the court.

Do you think Joyce had the benefit of PR counsel and doctored up those tears on the field yesterday? If you are cynical, maybe. But from what I could see, sincerity won the day. Not contrived, bullet-points sincerity, but the real genuine stuff from the core that showed a man who absorbed full responsibly for his actions, not deflecting blame. Perhaps this is something that’s more ingrained than can be taught, but it’s still a textbook play that big corporations should take note of and everyone can celebrate…. except for those Tiger fans who want that call back nearly as much as Hayward wants his life back.