The Best Time to Apologize
Sometimes apologizing is the best way to avoid being really sorry later.
In a society where apologizing can be equated with weakness, public figures and PR practitioners are often loathe to admit guilt, preferring instead to gamble that they will overcome negative publicity with a defensive, even defiant stand. But, all too often, the opposite happens.
When President Bill Clinton reversed his initial “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” defense and spoke to the nation in August 1998 to explain the Monica Lewinsky scandal, public criticism of his non-conciliatory tone was so powerful that he was forced to make a second presentation less than a month later, this time reflecting unambiguous contrition. “I’ve already said I made a bad mistake, and it was indefensible, and I’m sorry,” the president said.
Just because the PR profession is more potent and sophisticated than ever doesn’t mean its traditional arsenal will always be effective when the public is convinced of guilt. This is being learned throughout the profession, not just through misdeeds of politicians and public figures.
Few sectors have more to lose when making mistakes than the health care industry. Doctors are no more error prone than other professionals, but their mistakes can have grave consequences. And, like other industries, the medical community has in the past shunned the notion of apology, perhaps concerned it would encourage greed and opportunism in an increasingly litigious society.
But the opposite may be true. Sorry Works! is a grassroots advocacy group dedicated to infusing responsibility and apology into medical corporate culture. The group’s growing list of members includes more than 70 hospitals, as well as doctors, lawyers and insurance companies, all of whom embrace the notion that saying “I’m sorry” saves money in the long run, to say nothing of the ethical implications of accepting responsibility when you make a mistake.
Under the Sorry Works! method, whenever a medical mistake is made, the hospital begins with a personal apology. The next step is usually a negotiated settlement without the use of the court system. Founder Doug Wojcieszak says hospitals that embrace his organization’s approach see a dramatic decrease in litigation costs. He cites the University of Michigan Hospital System, which reportedly saw legal costs cut by two-thirds after adopting the Sorry Works! protocol. It was compelling enough for the federal government, which is instituting the group’s policy in its VA hospitals.
Tried and Failed
Wojcieszak says the organization was born out of the notion that the health care industry’s traditional way of handling malpractice complaints is not only unfair to victims of malpractice, but costly and counterproductive for hospitals and insurance companies. He describes it as a “tried and failed” risk management strategy. “And that culture is, when you make a mistake, run away and hide, don’t talk to people and ditch the records,” says Wojcieszak.
Sorry Works! cites that 70 to 80 percent of lawsuits against doctors are dismissed or withdrawn with no monetary award for the plaintiffs. So why is a policy of apology even worth considering? Because in a way, hospitals lose the minute a case goes to trial. “Win or lose a lawsuit, you for sure have lost a customer; you’ve lost a client; you’ve lost a friend,” says Wojcieszak.
Sorry Works! does not advocate apology when the hospital or doctor is certain they did nothing wrong. But the beauty of the program, according to Wojcieszak, is that taking responsibility for your mistakes has a side effect of lending credibility to claims of innocence, too.
That may provide reassurance for politicians, CEOs and PR practitioners. After all, credibility is the most important commodity in public relations. The only thing harder than building it is rebuilding it.
It will take some time before “I’m sorry” becomes more prevalent than “I’m suing.” In order to incorporate apology into standard PR strategy, those in the public eye will need to be convinced that apologizing will do more to preserve a reputation than destroy one.