Damage Control 101: The Art of the Apology
Apologies don’t always come that easy and aren’t always that easy to deliver, are they?
Then again, the circumstances begging for an apology – especially a public apology at a time when a harsh limelight is focused on the situation – are usually far more complicated than my example. When it comes to damage control as a public relations strategy, knowing how and when to deliver an apology can make all the difference between success and failure.
Those of us who live and work in the DMV, the newer term for the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, know all too well that few things connect the 6 million or so inhabitants in our region – and can create absolute havoc amongst us – quite like the first significant snowstorm of the winter. That storm happened this week.
As a former school district spokesperson and as a parent myself, I assure you there is nothing that is more certain to bring out the “Monday morning quarterbacks” than a seemingly botched decision on whether to close schools or not.
Such was the case this week for the folks who run several of the major school districts in northern Virginia, including those from Fairfax County Public Schools. Based on an almost universally agreed-upon weather forecast of about an inch of morning snow, FCPS made the decision to open schools on time.
Based on that decision, thousands of students, teachers, staff and the rest of the morning commuters ventured out during the height of the storm. And, of course, the storm dropped far more than an inch of snow in those areas and caused gridlock and treacherous conditions on icy, snow-covered roads. The wrath of the fast-moving storm itself was exceeded only by the firestorm that is that of the public reaction.
At some level, it’s almost always a “lose-lose” proposition for the decision-makers who have to make the big call, often at such an early hour of the day, without the benefit of hindsight.
If you close the schools and the storm fizzles out, you’re called wimps. (“That would never happen in the Midwest, where I grew up and schools never closed!” is one of the most popular refrains.) If you close schools too easily and too often, precious classroom time will be lost and school days will have to be made up later. It goes on and on. No-win … lose-lose.
So this time, it was the vaunted Fairfax County Public School district that took the greatest heat. Pour the fuel on the fire that comes from the area’s ample collection of “storm-center news teams,” add an overactive, snow-day social media landscape that ensured the immediate national trending of the angry Twitter hashtag #closeFCPS, and you’ve got a real barn-burner on your hands.
In the end, it was a very rough day for all involved in Fairfax County, Virginia. Clearly, FCPS made the wrong call in keeping their schools open, especially as so many other area jurisdictions changed their early decisions of delay to closing and Fairfax chose to not follow suit.
But with that said, IMHO (that is “in my humble opinion,” for those like me, who once had to look that up on Urban Dictionary), FCPS actually nailed the apology! By late afternoon, they issued the following mea culpa.
Short, sweet, contrite. “Hey, we screwed up!” Textbook stuff – right out of the pages of Damage Control 101. You had a rough enough day, FCPS, so on this one, this old school spokesperson will give you an “A” grade. On the apology, at least! The damage is done on the closing decision.
– Steve Simon, vice president of Van Eperen & Company, is a former director of public information for Montgomery County Public Schools. His claim to infamy is that as the “messenger” for that school district, he once took some ribbing in the USA Today newspaper from the President of the United States himself, for one of his school district’s snow closing decisions. email@example.com