Weasel word apologies

If George Orwell was alive today no doubt he could write a scathing condemnation of the weasel word apologies which emerge from companies and institutions after lawyers and PR people have laboured over words which seem right but deep down don’t really say much at all, murder the English language and obscure the truth.

In a recent newsletter Tony Jaques highlighted one form of the weasel word non-apology in focussing on the words often used recently – ‘mistakes were made’. See http://us1.campaign-archive1.com/?u=12234fd351f8df7c1f43248ea&id=d46b0bfbb6

Tony says: “Issuing a ‘non-apology’ during an issue or crisis can sometimes be even more damaging to reputation and recovery than no apology” and cites everyone’s favourite Catholic cleric, George Pell “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.’(emphasis added)  Better, Mr Pell, but still not as good as a simple ‘I made mistakes.’”

There is a passivity about these weasel words which underscores the validity of Orwell’s advice to use active voice rather than passive voice to write effectively. By using the passive of course the emphasis shifts from what you have done to what was done to you. It is almost as if the purveyors of the ‘mistakes were made’ formula are trying to portray themselves as victims rather than the people on the end of the mistakes. George Pell has form in this area claiming, early in the unfolding of the horrendous story of abuse by Catholic clergy, that it was all a media beat-up implying the Church was the victim rather than all the children who clergy abused only for the Church to cover it up.

The Commonwealth bank, fresh from its own problems with dodgy financial advice and dodgy financial advisers, didn’t quite go the ‘mistakes were made route’ but in their Annual Report and shorter form Annual Review come close.

In the Annual Review, a popular four colour version of the annual report, Chairman David Turner and CEO Ian Narev, say: “Our performance for 2014 has been marred by the negative and extensive publicity relating to shortcomings in our financial advice business in the past.” The problem with this formulation seems to be the publicity and not the ‘shortcomings’. They go on to say they ‘deeply regret’ the situation and that they “took decisive action to do the right thing for our customers and to change the way in which we run that part of our business.” In the Chair’s report in the Annual Report the ‘shortcomings’ become “the flaws in our financial advice business” and the ‘decisive action’ becomes “we believe we acted decisively when the problem was uncovered”. The Chairman also says “I apologised to all our shareholders for these unacceptable events.” It doesn’t need advanced training in deconstruction to understand why dodgy actions somehow become transmogrified into the rather more neutral ‘events’. At least in the Annual Report the Senate Committee report which, along with great reporting by Adele Ferguson, exposed the dodgy CBA actions gets mentioned, although once again the emphasis shifts to the fact that it was “a highly publicised report” that was “critical of these flaws.” No doubt lawyers and PR people spent hours drafting and re-drafting this collection of unconvincing words which sort of admit responsibility while hedging every statement with weasel words and qualifications. Not quite as unsubtle and stupid as George Pell’s effort but very much from the same playbook.

Tony Jaques, in his newsletter says, “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,’” Tony says.

By the way in the same newsletter there is a link to an excellent guide for communications people to Wikipedia including some best practice guidelines for using it, conflicts of interest, what you can do about vandalism, and some guides on how PR people can avoid falling foul of Wikipedia rules and causing a crisis for themselves. It’s written by William Beutler and can be found at ttp://cdn2.hubspot.net/hub/403249/file-1630283194-pdf/Wikipedia_and_the_Communications_Professional.pdf Tony Jaques new book, Issue and Crisis Management, which the blog has mentioned a couple of times has also now been launched and is on sale.