a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Letterman's on-air apology shows contrition good tactic

Nothing speaks louder in television than a bump in the ratings, and the success David Letterman has had in navigating his way out of scandal should settle an argument about public relations once and for all: contrition works.

But it won't. That's because it is human nature to evade, make excuses, dissemble, play the blame game and lie. Far too many companies and governments will continue to resort to these tactics to control damage in the public eye.

It is because of such behaviour, that expressions of remorse, full disclosure and other elements of contrition work so well in public relations.

The public is so used to cover up and blame shifting, that simply telling the truth and accepting responsibility are seen as refreshing and therefore creditable. PR consultants will always tell their clients to tell the truth because it makes tactical sense.

Consider a couple of recent cases in Canada.

In 2008, 22 people died from eating cold cuts processed by Maple Leaf Foods. To his credit, Michael McCain, the Maple Leaf CEO, owned up to the fact that the meats were contaminated with listeria at his company's plant in North York.

Maple Leaf took full responsibility and began taking immediate steps to ensure such a tragedy never happens again. Maple Leaf also moved to expedite settlement of lawsuits and actually supported increased regulation of the meat processing industry.

No excuses. No evasion. No shifting of blame. With the exception of a Maple Leaf vice-president who told a tasteless joke in public about listeria last August, the company's conduct has been exemplary. Now the company's most important asset, its reputation, is on the mend.

Let's contrast this approach with how Ottawa handled the case of Canadian citizen Suaad Hagi Mohamud.

This is the Toronto woman who found herself stranded in Kenya for three months because she didn't resemble her passport photo in the opinion of an airline employee and subsequently, a Canadian diplomatic official.

After months of stonewalling, Ottawa was forced by the Federal Court to conduct a DNA test. That DNA established once and for all that she was not an imposter, as Ottawa had been claiming, and the single mother was finally cleared and reunited with her son.

When this case first became public, the feds could have simply announced they were investigating and arranging emergency travel documents so that woman could return to Canada for interviews and a DNA test. Instead Ottawa went on the offensive and did everything it could to discredit Mohamud in the media and in court.

All the while, Ottawa maintained it labeled this single mother an imposter after a thorough investigation. Yet the government's own written evidence shows that wasn't thecase.

Mohamud flunked a civics quiz in an interview with a Canadian embassy official, according to federal court filings. That prompted suspicion in the mind of a Canadian embassy official.

The suspicion may have been justified. But rather than establish the truth with DNA, Canadian officials handed the woman over to Kenyan authorities who imprisoned her before allowing her to stay in Nairobi on bail.

That's right. A Canadian citizen was charged and imprisoned by a foreign government because Canadian officials were unwilling to order a DNA test and then tried to lie their way out of the controversy.

As the controversy continues -- the woman has filed a lawsuit -- Ottawa continues to dig itself in deeper. This ugly controversy is far from over and most Canadians are wondering to themselves if the case would have been different had Mohamud come from a different racial background.

In this case, an honest mistake may have been originally made. But Ottawa's tactics will always be remembered as an ugly example of what not to do in reputation management.

As always, I am eager to receive your comments.

1 comment:

  1. One of the main points that have been driven into our heads while studying public relations is "tell the truth, no matter what". It's funny that a student is more aware of the necessity of doing this than the government. You'd think they'd have learned from past mistakes.