What do you say when you’ve screwed up?


As I told my fourth-grade son this past weekend when he got caught doing something he knew he wasn’t supposed to do, there’s a point where you stop trying to

explain how it isn’t really bad, or isn’t your fault. You’re caught dead to rights, and all you can do is own up, apologize and try to fix it if possible.

I realized midway through the discussion that my parenting was indistinguishable from basic crisis communications counsel that I’d given a client earlier in the week: “Admit what happened. Apologize. Say what you’re going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again. Apologize again, then shut up.”

There’s a reason that what works for an elementary school student works for a corporation – it’s a natural, organic way in which humans communicate with each other. In a crisis situation, audiences and stakeholders are looking for simple and trustworthy information. Organizational stakeholders aren’t looking for weasel words any more than parents are when a kid’s hand’s caught in the cookie jar. They’re looking for a concise and simple “I’m sorry. I screwed up. I know I shouldn’t have done it, and I won’t do it again,” without hedging or qualifications or justifications.

While I wasn’t expecting the continuing education this weekend, it was nice to be reminded that there’s a real virtue in truthful simplicity in communications in times of crisis, whether you’re nine years old or a $9 billion company.