If there is a word one rarely associates with public relations, it is the word “absolute.”
Everything in this profession seems to be relative. Our morals are relative; ideologies are relative; codes of conduct are relative. Relativity, in fact, allows for denial, as well as dis- and misinterpretation.
Even truth is relative. My definition of truth is 15% facts and data, and 85% emotion and point of reference. Truth is often sloppy, imprecise and always unique to an individual’s (including a reporter’s) experience and personal perspective. But there are four behaviors in communication and relationships that have a kind of positive, constructive, and helpful absolute value when applied — Apology, Candor, Disclosure and Seeking Forgiveness.
I define this behavior as The Atomic Energy of Empathy. When an apology is properly applied, bad things begin to stop happening, including litigation. An absolute apology has five integrated and necessary components:
- Admission: Something was done that harmed someone else or created a victim. An explanation of the nature of the harm and the wrongness of the damage
- Recognition: An explanation with specific examples of the damaging offenses that demonstrate that the perpetrator is truly contrite and knowledgeable.
- Commitment: The lessons learned from these bad behaviors and how future perpetrator behavior will change in permanent positive ways. That in so far as possible everything will be done to prevent the offensive actions or behaviors from happening again.
- Direct Request for Forgiveness: Asking the victims and survivors to forgive the perpetrator provided they carry out these five steps.
- Penance/Restitution, Sincerely negotiated remediation of the damage and the resolution of victim pain and suffering.
Truth With an Attitude Delivered Now
I define candor as truth with an attitude, delivered immediately. It is the most critical ingredient or building block of trust. It is information, even fragmentary data and insight delivered well before the need arises, even if detrimental to your personal interests, concerns and welfare. The opposite of candor is deception. Candor is sharing what you know, when you know it, whether needed to be known now or not.
The Absolute Power of Absolutely Disclosing
Disclosure: absolute openness; providing information needed ahead of potentially serious circumstances; information that explains, describes, elaborates and informs beyond what might be deemed adequate; providing questions and the answers which those affected will need to better understand, including questions that those affected might never think to ask until after the impact or harm has occurred; the description of activities, plans and strategies to mitigate, ameliorate, detect, deter and prevent, if possible, new or additional adverse events or circumstances.
Nine Steps to Rebuilding and Rehabilitating Trust
Seeking Forgiveness: society’s requirement for relationship, trust, and credibility restoration. Adverse situations using this template are remediated faster and cost a lot less. Also, they are controversial for much shorter periods of time, suffer less litigation, and help the victims come to closure more quickly. Obtaining forgiveness involves completing the nine steps below. To achieve success in the shortest possible time, these steps should be completed as quickly as possible: like start them all today. Skip a step or be insincere and the process will be incomplete and fundamentally fail.
Step #1 Candor: Outward recognition, through promptly verbalized public acknowledgement, that a problem exists; that people or groups of people, the environment, or the public trust are affected; and that something will be promptly done to remediate the situation.
Step #2 Extreme Empathy/Apology: Verbalized or written statement of personal regret, remorse, and sorrow, acknowledging personal responsibility for having injured, insulted, failed or wronged another, humbly asking for forgiveness in exchange for more appropriate future behavior and to make amends in return.
Step #3 Explanation (no matter how silly, stupid, or embarrassing the problem-causing error was): Promptly and briefly explain why the problem occurred and the known underlying reasons or behaviors that led to the situation (even if we have only partial early information).
Step #4 Affirmation: Talk about what you’ve learned from the situation and how it will influence your future behavior. Unconditionally commit to regularly report additional information until it is all out or until no public interest remains.
Step #5 Declaration: A public commitment and discussion of specific, positive steps to be taken to conclusively address the issues and resolve the situation.
Step #6 Contrition: The continuing verbalization of regret, empathy, sympathy, even embarrassment. Take appropriate responsibility for having allowed the situation to occur in the first place, whether by omission, commission, accident, or negligence.
Step #7 Consultation: Promptly ask for help and counsel from “victims,” government, the community of origin, independent observers, and even from your opponents.
Directly involve and request the participation of those most directly affected to help develop more permanent solutions, more acceptable behaviors, and to design principles and approaches that will preclude similar problems from re-occurring.
Step #8 Commitment: Publicly set your goals at zero. Zero errors, zero defects, zero dumb decisions, and zero problems. Publicly promise that, to the best of your ability, situations like this will be permanently prevented.
Step #9 Restitution: Find a way to quickly pay the price. Make or require restitution. Go beyond community and victim expectations, and what would be required under normal circumstances to remediate the problem.
Each of these four behaviors seem to have a unique sense of being absolutely right, absolutely helpful, absolutely appropriate and absolutely necessary.