How to Make ?a Graceful ?Retreat

Experts weigh in on the best way for an organization to admit a mistake.


Experts weigh in on the best way for an organization to admit a mistake.

To err is human, and organizations sometimes find themselves in a pickle, having to admit a mistake. Forgiveness may be divine, but bringing clients or the general public to that point may require some prickly crisis management. The question is how to concede misjudgment with poise and equanimity. We picked the brains of three local experts: Jake Kerr, managing general partner of the Vancouver Canadians; Norman Stowe, managing partner of the Pace Group public relations firm; and David Sung, president of Nicola Wealth Management.

Fess Up

“It’s the same with everything else in life,” says Kerr. “As quickly and as honestly as you can, fess up and get it behind you.” Public figures have got themselves into the finest of messes just by letting a small error fester. “The other thing,” adds Kerr, “is to get the issue fully dealt with at the front end.” Tell it all, and tell it like it is. This is far better than having the entire incident surface in the dribs and drabs of a drawn-out soap opera.

Be Sincere

None of us likes to admit we’re wrong. According to Stowe, it can take several days to get past the ego hurdle, and by then it’s too late. There is no sincerity in ​an overdue response drummed up by a lawyer or publicist. Canadians are forgiving by nature, Stowe argues, so set aside your ego and act early. Be candid. Be vulnerable. Nothing is less likely to get you off the hook than a disingenuous PR move. 

Call a Pro

Organizations don’t live and breathe crises the way a PR pro might. “When it hits the fan,” says Stowe, “it’s hard to keep a level head.” In a full-blown crisis, the entire organization is whipped into a frenzy. Chaos sets in. Clouded judgment follows. But it’s pretty tough to faze a pro. She’s trained and experienced, yes. But more importantly, she isn’t part of the commotion, offering objective analysis and advice from a safe remove.

Fill the Vaccum

“Crisis by its very nature is an information vacuum,” argues Stowe. “And in a world where media operate 24-7, you’ve got to be able to get a hold of the situation very quickly.” Make sure everyone is informed. Leave no room for speculation. Update reporters. Let them know when the next press conference will be held. The sooner you connect with your audience, the less likely the crisis will spin out of control. 

Take Action

Communication is paramount. Express regret and undertake to do things differently, then make sure you follow through. Once an apology is made, says Sung, “you have to say, here are the steps that we are taking to rectify the mistake, and here are the steps we are taking to ensure that it never happens again.” He points to three fundamental questions that need to be answered so as to make the best of a bad situation: Has there been an acknowledgement of error? What are you doing to fix it? What are you doing to ensure it isn’t repeated?