Issuing a “non-apology” during an issue or crisis can sometimes be even more damaging to reputation and recovery than no apology at all.
Everyone has their pet-hate weasel words people use to avoid a genuine apology, and a current favourite seems to be “mistakes were made.”
When the child welfare agency Anglicare Victoria recently issued a public apology over claimed abuse of children in its care, they fell back on explaining that “mistakes were made,” and the same weak formula was used in support by Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge. Just days later, Queensland’s former chief prosecutor admitted that “mistakes were made” in a decision to drop criminal charges against Olympic swimming coach Scott Volkers accused of abuse.
But for any organisation or individual seriously trying to manage an issue or crisis, this is a pale imitation of a genuine explanation. In fact social commentator Mark Memmot has called it the “king of non-apologies.”
It has been famously used by (among others) President Richard Nixon to justify the Watergate scandal; by British Prime Minister David Cameron to comment on UK Middle East policy; and by American General David Richards trying to explain how an air strike killed 70 Afghan civilians. Plus, of course, by a conga-line of celebrities and sports stars trying to avoid a proper apology. There’s even a book entitled Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2007)
Responding to a high profile abuse case earlier this year, Catholic Cardinal George Pell’s answer was slightly improved when he said “Mistakes were made by me and by others in the church.” Better, Mr Pell, but still not as good as a simple “I made mistakes.”
This is certainly not the only popular non-apology, and much has been written about that other favourite avoidance phrase “it is regrettable” as opposed to “I am really sorry.” As Canadian crisis consultant Melisssa Agnes says, a real apology shows you’re sincerely sorry for the mistake made and that you’ve learned from it, while “it’s regrettable” puts your lawyers at ease knowing that you aren’t directly admitting guilt.
However, “mistakes were made” is a champion sorry excuse for an apology, which seems to be gaining in currency, and there are some good reasons why you should stop using it
- It tries to evade or divert personal responsibility
- It conveys no compassion whatsoever
- It doesn’t in any way substitute for a genuine, sincere apology
- It doesn’t indicate any commitment not to make the same mistakes again, and
- It’s a statement of the blindingly obvious. Of course mistakes were made. That’s why you’re in the spotlight.
So next time an organisation or individual in trouble says “mistakes were made,” the best response should be “Yes, and you just made another one.”