MISTAKES HAPPEN. Sometimes these are what are called “unforced errors” in basketball, like stepping on the line or double dribbling. In public life, miscalculations are first dismissed as glitches.
The admission of fault, especially arising from a wrong sense of priorities or thoughtlessness, is not the automatic reaction to mistakes made. The default response is a process of cover-up, which PR practitioners call “damage control.” Often, the damage being controlled involves the possible derailment of a career.
Media that receive letters to their editors (or now more frequently blogs) pointing to mistakes like misidentifying a person in a photo or attaching a wrong (often lower) title like a corporate Vice-President for a newly promoted Senior Vice-President routinely print a section called “erratum” or errata, for plural mistakes — wrong name and wrong title. That such a correction section is buried in the inside pages of the obituary section (missing the irony in this placement), or maybe in the classifieds beside an advertisement for cough drops or promo motel rates in Cebu, does little to promote the sincerity of this act of contrition.
In digital media, however, fake news or “intentional errors” promoted by those hired for this specific purpose are just too routine. There is no effort to correct such planted land mines to reputations as their object is to blow these up to smithereens. The effort of the wounded party is almost futile as the troll attacks come fast and furious — start Phase 2 of the attack.
Readily admitting mistakes is not the automatic human reaction. Apologies are issued after other options like denials and blame-passing fail. The first thoughts that come to mind before an admission of guilt or incompetence involve deferring action or making a definitive statement.
Dilatory tactics are employed.
Let’s form a task force to see what really happened. Sure, you saw me on video clips making the rounds and seeming to bat away a fan trying to shake my hand too vigorously. Those video clips are misleading — I was trying to do a fist bump and hit the fan’s head instead. Also, I had a stigmata on my right hand and it’s still healing. I apologize that it looks like a contemptuous gesture on my part. It wasn’t meant to be. (Too much information?)
A spokesperson is appointed, preferably one who is not involved in the controversy. This allows the frontliner (reputation nurse) to start his briefing with a disclaimer — I was in Sydney when this thing broke out. I’m still gathering the facts and people have been so cooperative in putting the puzzle together for me. As soon as I have something, you’ll be the first to know. Please don’t tiptoe too long.
All these strategies are variations of postponing an inevitable admission of wrongdoing. The hope is that the public will forget about the whole matter and move on to a new crisis. There’s always one around the corner waiting to distract everybody from the current preoccupation.
As the entanglements multiply and the story falls apart, a confession becomes inevitable. It is curiously devoid of any admission of guilt. Phrases like “inappropriate conduct” and “subordinates eager to help but unaware of the consequences” and “it’s the fault of the computer that exercised its delete functions on the footnotes” are invoked.
So, there is a school of thought that adheres to the belief that the best way to avoid mistakes like misstatements and ineffective apologies for past regimes to which one is inevitably linked (as if to an umbilical cord) is to simply avoid public discussions altogether.
Damage control can also refer to future mistakes. Isn’t it better to avoid the possibility of error rather than defending it afterwards? The likelihood of being confronted and blubbering in reply to a pointed accusation or question is best evaded.
Does steering away from conflict rather than meeting this head on work? Brand managers of political personalities are willing to stake their reputations on conflict avoidance as a strategy for avoiding errors and having to apologize for them later.
The call for unity and the careful avoidance of conflict can be beguiling as a political strategy. (We don’t want to make enemies.) But isn’t engaging in discourse and resolving conflicts part of the job description? Clearly, one of the job applicants doesn’t agree… to disagree.
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda