Select the right words. Say them well.

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Whether you’ve seen Dog the Bounty Hunter or FEMA bosses, there’s been a lot of apologies being offered lately. FEMA faked a news conference on the California wildfires and Dog tried to explain his use of the “N” word in a taped phone conversation – and there have been others, but you get the idea. There is a right way and a wrong way to say you are sorry in public and knowing the right way can save you an awful lot of heartache.

Understand How the Outside World Sees Your Mistake:
You may not agree with how the world is judging you, but you better understand what is going on out there. (Some of what Dog had to say just raised more questions. Did he REALLY understand what he had done or was he just trying to save his skin?) The apology has to ring true for the listening audience — let them know you understand what happened and you are doing everything you can to correct it. If the outside world will never understand the subtle issues that went on behind-the-scenes, too bad. You have to suck-it-up and address what they DO understand if you want to have a chance to move ahead.

Don’t Wait Around:
When you wait too long it looks like you couldn’t really figure out if you had done something wrong! Prompt responses usually come from well organized communicators who understand what’s going on in the minds of the people who are important to them. Delayed apologies usually come from someone who has to go through a lot of infighting and has to fire some people before they can finally get around to saying they are sorry.

REALLY Say You Are Sorry:
In my opinion nothing is worse than a non-apology apology. You’ve heard it before. It often sounds something like this: “We are so sorry that many people think we’ve done something wrong.” Or how about: “We are sorry that misunderstandings have led to all of you thinking we’ve done something wrong.” Or maybe: “We are sorry we can’t tell you the whole story, which would of course completely clear our name!” When Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff heard about the FEMA faked news conference his words were blunt and to the point: “I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve ever seen since I’ve been in government.” Clear enough.

Don’t Assume Everyone on the Inside Can Make Correct Judgments:
After one embarrassing incident involving a very visible company’s CEO one executive told me nobody on the inside thought this would be a big deal. That’s a common response. Get some advice from the outside world or risk falling on your face and looking at months or even years to fix the problem.