How a couple of hundred years has changed things. The stridency of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, possibly stemming from Margaret Thatcher’s “The Lady’s not for turning” speech, now seems to have embedded the idea that admitting to an error, whether factual or an error of judgement, is an appalling thing to do and will make you look weak. This morning we had the hapless chancellor of the exchequer in the UK trawling the media performing a u-turn on his scrapping of the 45% tax rate for people earning over £150,000. At no stage did he concede that it had been a bad idea.It was just, he said, distracting from the good his party and by extension, the government was doing.
A media training client lies
This is not an approach we would ever advise our media training delegates to take. It’s second only to an outright lie. The reason is that both can come and bite you painfully later on.
One of our senior associates once media-trained someone who decided to use the session to practice a bit of dishonesty. The trainer been around for a while and asked the delegate about a particular event his company had arranged which hadn’t quite worked out. No harm had been done but his business hadn’t achieved the desired outcome. We asked about it and the client said he didn’t actually remember the event.
After the practice was over we said how surprised we were that he’d forgotten something about which there had been such a noise at the time. This was when he admitted he remembered it all too well but didn’t want journalists to have the quotes from him that admitted an idea had been unsuccessful.
So we pointed out that an informed journalist, had he been in a proper interview rather than a practice session, the headline would most probably have been “CEO forgets the occasion he let shareholders down completely”.
Which was fine in a media training session. It’s what we’re there for.
Nobody expects you to be other than human
The crazy thing is that all he had to do was to say the idea was implemented too early. There was a happy ending, he repeated the idea several years later and many of his crowdfunding shareholders profited handsomely. He wasn’t to know that at the time but what was the problem with admitting something hadn’t worked?
As we hinted at the beginning of this entry, the chances appear very good that this is a trend that started in the world of politics. “The Lady’s not for turning”, said Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. This rather suggested that turning would have been a sign of weakness, which 40 years earlier when we were at war might have been true, but in peacetime some reflection and maybe realignment can be a good idea.
Nonetheless, I can’t remember the last time I saw a politician of any political stripe being terribly ready to abandon a policy and concede it was a complete error. Even when they u-turn on something they dress it up as something it’s not. This isn’t something most of our clients should have to do.
You’re probably not in politics
Readers of this blog are highly unlikely to be in politics. There are therefore two pressures you won’t be facing. One is that you won’t be accountable to the public. People, including journalists, bloggers, podcasters, whoever, have no divine right to demand a response from you just because they have thought of a question they believe will catch you. If something is confidential, you can say so.
Second, you’re not dependent on a public vote for your job. There is unlikely to be much mileage in trying to bluff that you haven’t made a mistake. Whatever your politics, there is no denying that prime minister Liz Truss and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng have made a very shaky start to their incumbency. It’s quite possible that their reluctance to admit any culpability will follow them around for quite a while.
Watch this apology
Here’s an example. You might remember that Ovo Energy received a lot of criticism when it advised people to combat the energy crisis by cuddling a pet or loved one. The CEO Stephen Fitzpatrick went onto TV and here’s what came out.
“It was a bad day, we made a mistake”
On #BBCBreakfast the boss of OVO Energy Stephen Fitzpatrick apologies to customers who were told to ‘cuddle a pet or loved one’ if they can’t afford to put the heating on.https://t.co/ECCQaTFdMk pic.twitter.com/uqWYWBdiCL
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) January 12, 2022
No nonsense, no “it wasn’t our fault”, no spin. Let’s not suggest for a moment that he particularly enjoyed this appearance and we can only hope that the person who put the offending social media content online was offered training and support rather than anger and criticism.
Nonetheless, this honest admission that someone made a bad mistake, coupled with an open apology, is how we advise our clients to behave when there’s been a screw-up. They happen and other than being played to leaders as an example of how to conduct yourself when something bad has happened, this is highly unlikely to turn around and damage the company in future. It leaves Fitzpatrick able to deal with the issues of the day rather than the issues of yesterday, and goodness knows in the energy industry there are going to be enough problems coming up in the near term without having to deal with something in the past.
So our advice is always to face a problem head on. Address it, neutralise it and admit to mistakes. No sensible reader is going to assume you’re perfect, why should you pretend?
Do you or your clients need help with your interview style? We can help – contact Lindsay@Clapperton.co.uk and she will arrange an initial discussion to explore which of our team will be best able to assist.