Jesse Jackson’s Brilliant Apology

Jesse Jackson

Last week, former congressman, Jesse Jackson Jr., was charged with conspiracy, making false statements, and mail and wire fraud. This is serious stuff, requiring a serious statement. Fortunately, Jackson has a brilliant lawyer, who issued the following apology on his client’s behalf:

Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties. Still I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made. To that end I want to offer my sincerest apologies to my family, my friends and all of my supporters for my errors in judgment and while my journey is not yet complete, it my hope that I am remembered for things that I did right.

Leave aside the grammatical error (“none of us are” should be “none of us is”), as well as the semantic sloppiness (“all of my supporters” should be “all my supporters”) and lack of commas. The statement is succinct, thoughtful, and shrewd—especially when compared with how Jackson blundered his last spin in the crisis chair. This time around, the congressman nails it. Here’s how Jackson succeeded this time:

1. He begins with a Big Picture reflection that paints himself as an everyman. He says, in effect, “We all make mistakes.” Who could disagree with that?

2. He doesn’t point fingers or refer to extenuating circumstances. Instead, he embraces his culpability without qualification.

3. He doesn’t dance around the elephant. Instead, he walks straight up to it and apologizes, directly and earnestly.

4. He doesn’t rely on adjectives to make his point. Instead, he writes with nouns.

5. He closes by asking people to remember him for the good he’s done, and refrains from self-indulgently citing examples. This understated, upbeat note thus effectively shifts our final focus.

My only disagreement: Jackson’s misdeeds aren’t mere “errors of judgment,” as he claims. Self-dealing and theft are crimes.

Anyone can apologize. Indeed, we all do from time to time. But to do it well—to extinguish the fire rather than re-ignite it—ultimately requires the one thing that PR pros can’t fake: sincerity.

For example, in the past month alone, the Atlantic has apologized with frankness, humor, and transparency for its Scientology advertorial. Maker’s Mark has apologized with heart, brio, and class for almost diluting its bourbon. And a leading environmental activist has apologized with honesty and courage for spearheading the movement against genetically modified foods.

Study these examples, together with Jackson’s. Even if you’re not Larry David, chances are, you’re going to need to say “sorry” sooner or later.

Jonathan Rick is the president of the Jonathan Rick Group, a digital communications firm in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @jrick.

A version of this blog post appeared in PR Daily.

4 Things Notre Dame Should Do about Manti Te’o’s Online Hoax

University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o certainly had a horrible end to 2012 and his New Year is shaping up to be no better.

First his online sweetheart Lennay Kekua succumbs to cancer on Sept. 12—the same day his grandmother dies. Then he finds out that neither the disease nor the girl was real and that he’d fallen in love with a figment of his imagination.

This situation wouldn’t have been so bad for Te’o if the story had remained among his immediate circle of friends. They’d tease him into infinity but he’d eventually get over it. Thanks to Deadspin.com, the whole world knows Te’o loved empty words and another woman’s stolen photo, and they think he was involved in the lie.

In his interview with Katie Couric, taped Jan. 22, Te’o admitted that someone posing as Kekua called him on Dec. 6. Though he knew something wasn’t right, he continued the ruse anyway to save face.  We don’t know for sure if he was in on the hoax the whole time or not (the levels of he-said she-said here are amazing). But if he wasn’t, how does he deal with massive embarrassment while trying to be a normal college student and athlete?

Notre Dame is probably wondering what they should do in this predicament, too. After all, the media refers to this debacle as the “Notre Dame hoax.” Is this a PR nightmare? Maybe not.

As head of Notre Dame’s public information office, here are four things my staff would do to mitigate the situation:

  1. Ask Te’o if he’s okay and offer him our support. The statement the university issued on Jan 16 was fine, but this story is just a student’s personal dilemma. The fact that he spoke publicly about his “girlfriend” while wearing a school football uniform doesn’t make this a university-wide issue. All we have is his word that he was truly a victim. The university’s first responsibility is to the student. We’d meet with Te’o, find out how he’s holding up and support him however we can—especially when dealing with the media. Perhaps we’d help him devise a crisis strategy, choose what media outlets to speak to and provide him with media training. Maybe we’d even suggest he appear on MTV’s Catfish to solve the peculiar mystery. We’d also answer any media inquiries that come into our office—including through social media—supporting Te’o’s official statement.
  2. Provide him counseling resources and have a mental health professional contact the student. Te’o could tell us he’s okay with everything going on, but we never know for sure what’s going on in his mind. We’d give him the names and numbers of a handful of counselors—or a counselor at the university—just in case. We’d also have one of these counselors call him to open the communication line.
  3. Make sure the football coaches offer their support and address the issue to the team. Te’o’s coaches should make sure he knows they have an open door policy and are there if he needs them. The coaches and players should also talk about the situation briefly as a team.
  4. Organize an online dating discussion on campus and tell Te’o beforehand that this is happening. There are probably other students on campus experiencing similar situations. Help a campus organization organize a forum about online dating and invite experts to answer questions and encourage discussion.

Angie Jennings Sanders is chief content architect at aiellejai, a boutique content creation consultancy specializing in marketing communications project management, social media engagement, writing instruction/tutoring and book writing/publishing strategy. aiellejai is a subsidiary of esolutions360, a digital solutions agency that marries the creativity of content creation with the fundamentals of software engineering. Follow her on Twitter at @pronouncedALJ.

Communicating with Employees in an Emergency

Susan Rink, of Rink Strategic Communications, provides three important employee communications tips to help your business or organization prepare, should a crisis or emergency arise.

For more information about employee communications strategies, please visit http://www.rinkcomms.com

Predicted Swine Flu Outbreaks Will Test Crisis Plans

Mexico Swine Flu This summer, while most companies are struggling to stay afloat due to recession woes, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is quietly preparing for what could be the final straw for many small and medium businesses – a severe swine flu outbreak.

And this time around, employee communicators will have to deal with much bigger problems than finding a tactful way to explain that the workplace isn’t a daycare center for kids whose schools have closed due to the flu.

According to several news sources, the CDC is predicting that up to 40% of the U.S. population will become infected with swine flu this fall.  That’s right, up to 40%.

A recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that three out of five Americans believe that a there will be a widespread swine flu outbreak this fall, and 90% would be willing to avoid shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, public transportation, etc., for an extended period of time — up to two weeks — if instructed to do so by public health officials.

That’s bad news for those businesses and their employees.

Even if the swine flu outbreak fails to reach the predicted severity, most companies will have to deal with some level of absenteeism this fall, and some will find themselves having to decentralize their operations, with employees working from home.

My advice to communicators:  don’t treat these predictions as hyperbole.  Take time now to review your business continuity and crisis communications plans.  Reach out to your counterparts in HR and make sure there is a policy in place for swine flu-related call-outs.  Set up a phone number that your employees can call into to hear a recorded message about building closures and alternate work locations.  Most importantly, let your employees know that the company is taking these preparations seriously.

As they say in the disaster business, the secret to surviving a crisis is to “plan for the worst, and hope for the best.”

Communicating to Your Employees during a Crisis

emergency lightThe Metro rail collision in Washington, D.C. on Monday serves as a sober reminder that a crisis can occur anytime, anywhere.  In a matter of seconds, a business can be plunged into crisis mode, with little time to strategize about how notify their employees and update them on recovery plans.

Communicators owe it to themselves — and to their employees — to prepare for a crisis before being confronted with one.

Say you don’t have a crisis communications plan and you need to pull one together.  Where do you start?  At minimum, a good communication plan, regardless of type or size of the business, includes four basic elements:

  • a checklist that accounts for all audiences and vehicles
  • well-defined roles and responsibilities
  • a resource/phone list, and
  • a collection of samples

The checklist documents the top-line steps that need to be addressed when communicating to employees.  Examples:  When do you notify executives and employees?  How will you announce the crisis to your employees (voicemail, PA announcement, email, intranet, text message, Twitter, etc.)?  Will the switchboard/receptionist need to be notified and coached on how to handle calls?  How frequently will you provide status updates to your employees?

Roles and responsibilities must be defined ahead of time, and redundancy built in just in case the person responsible for the task is unavailable.  Examples:  Who will serve as the key internal spokesperson?  Who approves the content of the announcements?  Who can send a text/email/voicemail to all employees?  Who can post to the intranet?  Who is responsible for updating the executive team?

Having an up-to-date list of available resources and phone numbers will save critical minutes during a crisis.  The list should include: home and cell numbers for all executives and management team members; emergency contact info for all employees; home and cell numbers for key members of the IT support team; phone and fax numbers for all locations; Red Cross and other relief agencies, etc.  In addition, I recommend that medium to large companies establish an inbound phone number for employees to call for status updates and building closure information.

Finally, it’s always a good idea to have a collection of samples and templates on hand.  Examples:  scripts for the operator/receptionist; internal holding statements and updates; voice mail and text messages; talking points for managers, etc.  Depending on the emergency, you may find that you need to rely on communications novices to help work through your checklist.  In that case, the templates will come in quite handy.

Don’t put off crisis communications planning because it seems like an insurmountable task. There are a variety of good crisis communications resources available online:

In addition, many trade associations have created crisis planning resources to help their members.  Call their member services number or check out the Web site.  Or, you can check with your local Chamber of Commerce; many of them offer this type of resource to their members.

Plan ahead.  You’ll be glad you did.

Susan C. Rink is principal of Rink Strategic Communications, which helps clients take their employee communications to the next level.  Email her at rinkcomms@verizon.net.