Sorry seems to be the hardest word - the art of the apology
Politics rarely gets as bizarre as when Eric Abetz gets it right – even if it is in admitting he stuffed it up.
Like the Fonz choking on the word ‘wrong,’ most of our leaders just can’t spit out the magic word even when it’s so obviously in their best interest to ‘fess up and apologise.
Abetz’s effort in apologising to the PM met a majority of the requirements in the Definitive Punch Guide to Saying Sorry After Publicly Disgracing Yourself, which I outline below.
In doing so Abetz mitigated the self-inflicted damage over his role in the Grech affair, while managing to further embarrass his Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, who broke nearly every rule in the book.
The beauty of the well-executed apology is that it takes all the heat out of an issue, convincing the media that is preying on you not only that they have had a win but that they have made you a better person in the process.
It taps into the grand Shakespearian narrative of modern day politics, heroic figures rising to power and prominence but always harbouring a private flaw that will prove their undoing.
The apology works because it embraces hyperbole, recognising that just as the powers of our leaders are embellished on the way up, so too are the extent of their failings on the way back down. It’s part of the deal.
In this light Abetz’s effort, lined up with the Turnbull non-apology, are good case studies in what to do and what not to do when you are in the deep doo-doo.
Abetz chose the local Hobart ABC radio studio with a journalist he was comfortable with and simply took his medicine. His apology to Rudd was non-conditional, he attempted to explain his actions, but not justify them. He repeated his words in Parliament, placing them on the official record.
In contrast and on the same day Turnbull couldn’t bring himself to admit wrongdoing. Instead he withdrew the allegations and then got caught into a technical argument that went all the way back to the AWB inquiry to argue Oppositions should have a go.
Turnbull’s mistake was he approached the question like a lawyer, looking for a defence, missing the point that the real value of a well-formed public apology is accrued by the transgressor.
Instead of ruling a line through the issue, Turnbull has keep the question of his judgment alive because he has sent the public the message that he does not think he has done anything wrong. In doing so, he has ensured that he is virtually guaranteed to repeat his mistakes anew.
So, as a public service to the Liberal Party and their leader – as well as any other Punch readers who are planning to disgrace yourselves any time soon - I outline for the first time Definitive Punch Guide to Saying Sorry After Publicly Disgracing Yourself.
1. Dress like you are going to a funeral, not to a disco. Your reputation has just died, so don’t treat it as a casual affair. One national union leader who I worked for had cause for a public apology a few years back and turned up to the press conference in jeans, a look that undermined the gravity of the situation. Within minutes we had swapped trousers (and I can tell you he had been sweating a bit that day). It is a service I only offer clients once.
2. Be more outraged at your action than anyone else in the room. As I mentioned above, the apology is in large part show-business, so it is essential you are more disappointed with your behaviour than anyone else in the room. Try words to the effect that: ‘I have let myself down, my Party down, my supporters down, my family down, humanity down.’
3. Leave some time for anger. This has become the preferred formulation for disgraced footballer. “I know I slept with my team-mate’s wife, I am sorry for that and now I want to move on” We know you want to move on, who wouldn’t? But the genuine apology allows the remorse to hang there until others are prepared to let you move on – and that is usually a couple of laps of the news cycle.
4. Don’t say your opponent was just as bad. This will now go down as the Turnbull play, the attempt to justify your actions by saying he was just as bad. Kevin Rudd made terrible accusations against Alex (can you believe they call him Alex?) Downer and John Howard had copped it just as bad from Rudd over AWB so I can say anything I want about him. This is not the way to hose down an issue.
5. Apologise to your victim, not to your family. It’s fine to go broad with an apology – the Australian people, even the world, but be careful if you narrow it. Matthew Johns missed his chance when he pre-empted Four Corners only to apologise to his wife for the hurt and embarrassment he had caused her rather than the traumatised woman who was about to let anguish rip, reinforcing the point that League players just don’t get it.
6. Apologise for what you did, not that what you did may have upset someone. One of our former PM’s favourite formulations when he flirted with apologies was to say “I’m sorry if people are upset by what I did or didn’t do ..” Apologising for upsetting people shows you are only concerned about the spin, not about the action that caused the backlash.
7. Offer a ‘revelation’ into your action that makes you a victim too. If you really want to move the story on, make the transgression about something that castes you in an EVEN poorer light. Without trivialising the issue, a number of fallen sports stars have used a scandal to publicly explain their battles with depression or mental illnesses. Some of these fallen idols are now anchoring national TV programs.
8. Don’t take questions – unless they are from Andrew Denton. Finally, if you have made it through the written statement don’t go tempting fate. A pack of journalists will always want more and you always run the risk of undoing your good work. Without the benefit of Andrew Denton’s empathy, it’s just not worth the risk.
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