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Own Your Mistakes

Updated: Sep 30, 2023



Working in communications takes a good deal of courage. We publish things regularly for the whole world to see… and to judge. No matter how hard we scrub that newsletter article or Tweet, we will inevitably slip up and publish something that doesn’t match our intentions.


The natural reaction is to hide the mistake. We might delete it or edit it before it gains momentum, but when that’s not possible or the momentum is already swinging, let’s be honest: We die a little bit inside. We’re hired to be perfect. We’re not hired to make our own job more complicated.


Yet the standard of perfection is unattainable because, AI-produced copy aside, behind most communications are humans – tired, hungry, distractable humans who might know a lot about dozens of things but never know enough about everything else.


Weak organizations lay the blame at the feet of someone “less in charge.” They dole out justifications. They deny the mistake or its impacts. But strong organizations recognize that mistakes are, in fact, part of the job. They’re inescapable. And they bring opportunities to build trust.


Leaning into mistakes


Mistakes bring a golden opportunity to demonstrate that your organization is more than a glossy, cold behemoth with little capacity to feel. Stepping into the mistakes when they happen shows an audience that your organization is accountable and conscientious. It prevents a defensive response and thereby diffuses criticism because it leaves the critics with little traction. Even if you can’t totally quiet the negative chatter, you earn respect and trust by owning up to the tough stuff, and that can motivate advocates to speak up for you unprompted.


Approaches you might take to lean into mistakes:

  • Candor

  • Self-deprecation

  • Light humor (go easy here, read your audience)

  • Apology


Choosing the right tone requires a high degree of contextual sensitivity and authenticity:

  • Be sure it aligns with your brand.

  • Be sure it fits with how your audience expects to hear from you.

  • Avoid anything that might insult the intelligence of anyone on the outside.

  • And if the issue is particularly perilous, loop in your legal team before drafting an apology. (Apologies can be complicated.)


Hello legal departments


You’ll need to take a deep breath and hit the pause button if the mistake could result in a lawsuit. When in doubt, consult your in-house attorney. But approach the situation as openly as possible because you’ll need to navigate a tough debate over the utility of apologies—for good reason.


Attorneys: We see you. We know you really, truly do not want the words “sorry,” “mistake,” “apologize” or any of their relatives to appear in any public statement, ever—or at least not in any potentially controversial situation. But what the public wants (and needs), and what the courts expect, don’t line up well in this arena. PR professionals are trained in the court of public opinion and therefore are sometimes at odds with your training on the courts of law. But we have to work together here.


PR pros can get smart by reading this excellent write-up on how to navigate the challenge. Your attorneys should read it too. Establish a common goal (avoid a lawsuit, avoid legal penalties, etc.) and work to strike a balance between the expectations of the court of public opinion and the actual courts of law. Both are existentially real for organizations in crisis.


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Need help navigating an apology? Karapace Consulting brings experience in crisis communications for small and mid-sized organizations as well as individuals. Set up a quick consultation by reaching out at the form below.

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