Full marks to Gerry Brownlee. The earthquake minister may have his critics, but he knows how to deal with the media when he's made a mistake: front up to the stuff-up. He promised Canterbury that red-zone homeowners would be paid for house improvements - which turned out to be much more than he could deliver. So he went on camera, openly admitted the mistake, expressed regret and apologized.
But to gain more than you lose, it has to be done in a particular way.
First, we have to understand that the public forgives a mistake much more quickly than it forgives deception. Our culture favours people who are straight-forward in their dealings with us, come good or bad. But how many times have we been subjected to phrases like, 'Well I was taken out of context?'
Second, we must not be embarrassed as we make the admission or apology. This is a very subtle but powerful signal. If you're free of embarrassment, you're indicating that you know you (or your organisation) are bigger than any one mistake. It signals your inherent strength. But if you're embarrassed, you signal the opposite - weakness. If you saw Gerry Brownlee you may recall that he looked genuinely sorry, but not embarrassed.
Finding the right words
Here's a pattern that will often be useful in finding the words: the three Rs.
Regret. (We're sorry this has happened to Moana Jones) Often you should acknowledge the wounded party's feelings (It must have been frustrating for her.)
Restitution. Put it right. (We've written to her and apologized.)
Reform. (We'll be changing our procedures to make it much less likely to happen again.)
That can add up to what's called a 'handsome' apology or admission. In other words you come out of the manure smelling of roses.
How admitting a mistake can help you gain credibility
For those who think admission of error is a disaster to be avoided at all costs, the eventual interview can create a disaster much worse than the one they fear.
Of course, it can get very complicated in the CEOs office. I've seen shouting matches between the CEO (should we fess up?), the company lawyer (but they'll want compensation), the insurance agent (if you go public we won't cover you), and the comms manager (if we don't go public we'll have a PR disaster on our hands). The only certainty then is that your decision must not involve deception. You might like to check my blog on how to say no comment.
Mean what you say to the media
Last. If you're going to admit error or apologise, you have to mean it. You do have to feel genuinely sorry. And if you really mean it, you will probably apologise to the wounded party directly before you go to the media. I like that saying from a Nepalese tantra: When you say, 'I'm sorry', look the person in the eye.
In the meantime, my hat is off to Gerry Brownlee as an example of an endangered species - a politician who can look us in the eye and say he made a mistake.