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.

Reporter: "You did it. Care to comment?"
Acme Imports: "No we didn't do it."
Reporter: "Here's the proof."
Acme Imports: "Well, okay but there's been a lot of media distortion." (And because we lied about it, we're now disastrously embarrassed.)

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.


About Michael Brown

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Michael is a senior trainer with Skillset, based in Christchurch.

He is a leading authority on training in presentation and news media skills in New Zealand. He has special expertise in how to present emotionally-charged topics to challenging audiences. Michael has trained thousands of New Zealanders and worked with people who speak on behalf of some of the country's largest organisations.

Michael is a prolific author and his books on speaking and working with the media are in their fourth editions.

Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority

Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority

One of Michael's books is about his family's adventures sailing in the Pacific.

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