As a PR technique,  wholehearted apology can do wonders for you.  It takes the wind out of your critics’ sails, displays your integrity and courage and puts you on the side of the angels.   So you’d think more people would apologise more often.

The trouble is, they just can’t bear to do it.  And when, under pressure, they finally do, their apologies are so filled with weasel words and sneaky justification that they end up doing more harm than good.   We’re all too familiar with the classic “I’m very sorry if anyone was offended by my remarks….” meaning, of course, that the problem lay not in the remarks themselves, but in the unreasonable / unintelligent / downright stupidity of anyone who was misguided enough to be offended.  I’m not going to apologise.  I’m just sorry they are so stupid.

So, Oliver Letwin needed a stonking good apology.  Here’s what he offered us :

“I want to make clear that some parts of a private memo I wrote nearly 30 years ago were both badly worded and wrong.  I apologise unreservedly for any offence these comments have caused and wish to make clear that none was intended.”

Hmmm. Let’s deconstruct this wholehearted apology for a minute.

“Some parts”.  Just in case you thought the memo itself was offensive and misguided, let’s make clear we are only talking of some parts. Hard to think of a more fastidious separation of content since Du Maurier gave us the Curate’s Egg:

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

“A private memo” . So no business of yours.

“I wrote nearly 30 years ago”. Actually, a perfectly fair point.  Most of us of any age will have said and done things in the distant past which make us wince today.  But this is a point for others to make.  If you introduce it into your apology, you are immediately flagging up your need to mitigate and wriggle. Now your apology begins to ship water.

“both badly worded and wrong”.  Here the apology manages to be both clever and clumsy all at the same time.  Why not just say “What I wrote was wrong and inexcusable”? Well, you see, if I say it was “badly worded and wrong”, it sounds like I am being even more self critical – with an apology for my prose style as well.  Very humble here.   But of course, if I throw in a “badly worded”, then actually I am managing to sneak in the thought that I didn’t really mean it. It was just badly worded.  It came out wrong.  Now the apology has developed a full sneak of weasels . (Honestly.  That’s the collective noun for those vicious little beasts).

I apologise unreservedly.  Not really, it appears.

any offence these comments have caused. Not “any offence I have caused“. You see, it wasn’t me.  It was those pesky little badly worded comments.

“and wish to make clear that none (offence) was intended.  So there’s one important point this apology seeks to clear up.  The suspicion that deliberate offence was intended.  In this private memo, to Mrs Thatcher. Because we all were thinking that perhaps Oliver Letwin wrote it with every intention of causing offence, weren’t we?

Actually, this is one of the oldest and most crass techniques in the Non-apology strategy manual. Apologise for something for which no offence has been taken, or clear up a suspicion where none existed anyway.  It sounds like you are busy doing the right thing, when really you are not doing anything much at all.

Now, actually, I rather like Oliver Letwin. I think he’s a bright man who often talks a lot of sense.  On balance, I think he has been good for British politics.  And I am also pretty sure he no longer holds those views of 30 years ago.  But this apology deserves to enter the annals of PR horror stories.  It should be cited in lectures and quoted in text books.  It really is appallingly, clunkingly, buttock-clenchingly bad.   Depressingly, I fear that it was the product of a third rate “spin doctor”, rather than the honest expression of a decent man’s true remorse.

Terence Fane-Saunders
December 30, 2015




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