OTTAWA – For many politicians, sorry still seems to be the hardest word.
That appeared to be the case last week when rising Conservative cabinet star Lisa Raitt was caught musing aloud about the political advantage of the medical isotopes shortage – linking the words “sexy,” “radioactive leaks” and “cancer” together with nary an and or but in between.
Her stubborn refusal to apologize the next day despite a barrage of demands for contrition in the Commons caught many political observers and practitioners by surprise, particularly as Raitt was given clear evidence how disarming a simple “I’m sorry” could be.
While she was enduring the worst crisis of her brief tenure as natural resources minister, her more experienced cabinet colleague John Baird was facing his own self-created public relations fiasco.
But having been caught using a vulgar expletive, the normally combative Baird took a different tack. Asked in the Commons why he’d so rudely dismissed Toronto’s mayor, the transport minister simply rose in his place, apologized and escaped further torment.
“The purpose of the apology is to kill the story as fast as possible,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.
“I think it helped Baird that he apologized right away. What did it gain Raitt by not apologizing?”
In the end, Raitt was forced to apologize – the next day – in a tearful news conference in which she cited the death of her father and brother from cancer. But many believe the delay left her open to accusations of acting tactically rather than sincerely.
Most communications experts say it is almost always better to apologize early and unreservedly.
That was not always the case. At one time, the conventional wisdom had it that politicians should “never admit, never explain” and tough out the storm.
But the more modern view is that unless the transgression is so vile, offensive or possibly illegal that baring the facts is a one-way ticket out the door, the quicker the controversy can be put in the past tense the better.
Consultant Elly Alboim of the Earnescliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa said a major turning point in public relations thinking came about during the 1982 Tylenol tampering scare that resulted in seven deaths.
While not directly responsible, Tylenol makers Johnson & Johnson swiftly accepted responsibility, pulled the product from the market and re-introduced the pain remedy with a tamper-resistant seal. A similar strategy was adopted by Maple Leaf Foods Inc., during the Listeria contamination last year.
“Tylenol broke the ground in both taking responsibility and apologizing and established something nobody thought possible, to actually get by what looked like a corporate death by appearing to be transparent,” said Alboim. “Maple Leaf took it to an art form.”
Celebrities have also become practiced at apologizing early for any transgressions, but Alboim says many politicians still haven’t bought into the new thinking.
He notes that former prime minister Jean Chretien never apologized for anything, nor has current government head Stephen Harper admitted to errors of his own making, although he famously and effectively apologized for the country’s treatment of aboriginals.
Laura Peck, who with her husband Barry McLoughlin has advised scores of politicians as well as business leaders, says some of her clients get angry with her when she asks them to admit wrongdoing. Their reasoning is that it shows both weakness and guilt.
Her view is that it is almost always preferable to apologize, “but you’ve got to mean it.” She cites President Barack Obama as a model of how politicians should behave when they make a mistake.
“Obama is the embodiment of modern leadership. He will say, ‘I screwed up, sorry about that, I made a mistake.’ It shows he’s a big enough man to admit a mistake, and people forget about it,” she explains.
Not all offences or apologies are equal, however.
Baird’s apology was a relative no-brainer, says Alboim, with few lasting consequences. For Raitt, given the low esteem accorded politicians by the public, to admit that her instinct was to seek political advantage from cancer sufferers would likely cause her career irreparable harm.
Hence, Raitt’s apology was by necessity more nuanced. She did not apologize for what she said, but for how her remarks were interpreted. “I want to offer a clear apology to anyone who has been affected by what I have said.”
The distinction is critical, as her interview with Toronto radio station CFRB at the end of her week-long trial showed. Asked about the delay, the minister said she was surprised by how her remarks were being interpreted by “real people” outside Ottawa, particularly cancer sufferers.
“I realized real people were taking it in a very different way than had been intended,” she said.
“Regardless of whether or not I meant it, because I didn’t, it was still the right thing to apologize,” she concluded.
As with Baird, the apology immediately took the heat out of the story. But Alboim believes Raitt’s would have been better accepted, particularly from cancer sufferers who took offence, if it had occurred 24 hours earlier.
“If you are going to apologize, quick is better,” he said. “There can’t be much reason to wait a day or two or three unless you are not sincere. It looks calculated.”