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.

When the Media Gets It Wrong: Why Language Matters when Writing about People with Disabilities

Examples of person-first language

Photo credit: Southwest Center for Independent Living

A few years ago, I was reading an article in the Washington Post that mentioned several political appointees with disabilities. All of them were intelligent and accomplished, according to the article, but I remember cringing when the columnist used the term, “wheelchair-bound,” to describe them. This was not the first time I’d seen poor word choices used to report on people with disabilities in mainstream media, and it would not be the last.

You may be asking, “What’s wrong with the term wheelchair-bound?” Well, first of all, it is not accurate. Bound, in this context, means “confined to.” This is not the case for people who use wheelchairs. Many people who use wheelchairs transfer out of them to sit at restaurants, drive, bathe and do all kinds of other things. Some of them only use wheelchairs on certain occasions, or also use other mobility aids. For example, one of the appointees mentioned in the article, Tammy Duckworth (who was recently elected to the House of Representatives, but at the time, was an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs) also uses prosthetic legs.

Even people who cannot transfer out of their wheelchairs by themselves are not “bound” or tied to the chair; rather they use it as a means to get around. If you rely on your car, because there is a lack of public transportation in your town, are you “car-bound”?

Words are important because they form an image in your mind. “Wheel-chair bound” makes me think of a person who is confined to a wheelchair – someone who is limited by it. Why not simply write that a person “uses a wheelchair”? Using person-first language (e.g., a person who is deaf, people who are blind) is a simple way to write respectfully and positively about people with disabilities. By putting the person first, the writer places the importance where it should be – on the individual, NOT on his or her disability.

This is not a matter of “political correctness” or people being “overly sensitive.” There is a reason language about certain groups of people (e.g., women, minorities) has evolved over the years. Some words are no longer acceptable, because they are offensive or hurtful. Any woman who has been called “honey,” “sweetie” or “dear” in the workplace by an older male colleague can attest to what it feels like to be demeaned by words, even if that was not the intent.

Disability advocates have been fighting the battle to get the media to use appropriate word choices when writing about people with disabilities for decades.  Judging from what I’ve read recently, while there has been some improvement in this area, there is still work to be done. It should not be difficult to use person-first language, dump antiquated phrases like “wheel-chair bound” and stop re-enforcing old stereotypes that people with disabilities are victims, and yet sometimes it feels like members of the media have been slow to adapt the way they write about people with disabilities. I believe these changes do make a difference – that they go a long way to altering perceptions of people with disabilities – so I will continue to fight for them, both professionally and personally.

One of the excuses I’ve often heard is that writing “people with disabilities” takes up more space than writing “disabled people.” I understand that space is at a premium for print media, but I don’t think nine extra characters is a reason to continue using language that is disrespectful. If it’s awkward to repeatedly write “people with disabilities” throughout an article, the writer can simply use the abbreviation “PWDs” after the first instance.

The push to advocate for word choices that are respectful to people with disabilities isn’t limited to members of the media. Special Olympics has been leading a very successful and important effort called, “End the R-Word,” for the past several years to spread public awareness about how offensive and demeaning using the words “retard” or “retarded” in a derogatory manner is to people with intellectual disabilities, their families and friends. One young man in a video on the site illustrates the point perfectly when he says, “I’m not retarded. I’m Eric.”

Special Olympics and many others involved in the movement were very vocal with their criticism when political pundit Ann Coulter used the “R-word” on Twitter to describe President Obama following the third presidential debate. There has also been public outcry over the use of the “R-word” in movies, such as “Tropic Thunder” and “The Descendants.”

Thanks to the “End the R-Word” campaign and others, progress is being made. Recently, film director Adam McKay agreed to nix the word from the upcoming sequel to “Anchorman,” CNN reported positively on the campaign and last year, when comedian Rick Younger used the R-word on The Today Show, host Kathie Lee Gifford immediately told him, “We don’t use that word here.” Perhaps the most effective part of the campaign, however, is the “Not Acceptable” public service announcement, which compares the “R-word” to slurs used against other minority groups.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has developed an excellent resource about appropriate ways to write and speak about people with disabilities. They recommend:

  1. Using person-first language;
  2. Using the word “disability,” rather than “handicapped”;
  3. Avoiding the use of the words “normal” or “normally” as a comparison to people with disabilities (e.g., People who speak with a stutter often experience more difficulty on job interviews than people who speak normally.);
  4. Avoiding terms that project a negative connotation (e.g. wheel-chair bound); and
  5. Not overusing the word “special,” as in “special needs” or “special populations.”

Writing about people with disabilities (of which there are nearly 57 million in the U.S. alone) in a respectful, positive manner isn’t difficult. Simply following the guidelines above and advocating for members of the media to do the same will go a long way in helping to change perceptions about people with disabilities, so they are fully included in their communities and the workforce.

Diana Zeitzer is the communications director for Disability.gov. She is a proud Penn State alumna, who enjoys running marathons and performing improv comedy.

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

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.