A real apology explicitly acknowledges the nature and severity of the error, expresses real regret for causing harm, asks for forgiveness, and offers to make amends. The Dialogue Partners statement fails on all counts.
By Ryan McGreal
Published January 09, 2013
After the PR fiasco that accompanied the launch of "Our Voice, Our Hamilton", the public engagement consulting firm running the project issued a statement on their Facebook page that looked superficially like an apology.
Now, I've been married for 17 years, and in that time I've learned a few things about how to apologize for screwing up, all of which add up to: own the screwup. If your response does not own the screwup, it amounts to a non-apology apology.
A real apology explicitly acknowledges the nature and severity of the error, expresses real regret for causing harm, asks for forgiveness, and offers to make amends. The Dialogue Partners statement fails on all counts, instead resorting to a number of common dodges used to avoid issuing a real apology.
A real apology takes ownership of the offense. Saying I'm sorry you were offended is not an apology. It pushes responsibility out to the people who were offended instead of taking responsibility for having caused the offence.
When Dialogue Partners wrote, "We understand some individuals have been offended and we sincerely apologize for that," this is what they were doing. Instead, they should have written, "We understand we screwed up and we sincerely apologize for that."
A real apology takes personal responsibility for having caused the error. The Dialogue Partners letter implies, without coming right out and saying it, that the photographs from Hamilton Ohio and Hamilton Washington could have been done by someone else. "One of the trade-offs with using Pinterest is that it is open for anyone to post anything."
Of course, the pictures were posted by an account connected to Dialogue Partners, so it is disingenuous and frankly insulting to imply, however obliquely, that someone else might have posted them.
Instead, they should have come out and admitted it: "We obviously have a lot to learn about Hamilton, Ontario, as opposed to other cities also called Hamilton, and we apologize for not being ready when the campaign launched."
Less than half-way through their letter, Dialogue Partners wrote that they "hope you will also start sharing comments on City services that can be improved, changed, enhanced or that make a difference to you."
This suggests that the furor over how the initiative rolled out is a distraction from the real objective, and that focusing on it keeps us from carrying out the mandate of a service review. The real distraction is not the furor over the rollout but the rollout itself.
Instead, Dialogue Partners should have written, "Our goal is to help you share your comments on on City services that can be improved, changed, enhanced or that make a difference to you. We're sorry that the way we launched the project is getting in the way of that important goal."
Other comments in the media by representatives of Dialogue Partners are even worse. Earlier yesterday afternoon, Ian K. McCallum of Dialogue Partners posted several defensive comments in his Twitter stream (all quotations quoted as written).
In response to a comment about what "cutting edge technology" his company is using, McCallum replied, "Its day one of a multi month - multi phase discussion. Just having a WP site is big jump from the City's . lots in time"
He objected to being called a "PR firm", writing, "DP is not a PR firm, were a public engagement firm, The community is animated Now if we could get them on topic -ideas"
Asked to define the difference, he wrote, "Most often Comm's group are telling and persuading, DP informs (budget services) and ask your thoughts"
Accused of "spin doctoring" that response, he added, "I answered a fair question in tight space well - where is the spin - and yes we have said sorry"
According to an article on CBC Hamilton, DP managing director Stephani Roy McCallum "played down the Twitter reaction to the project, adding that the social media comments don't represent the views of many Hamiltonians."
McCallum is also quoted in an article in the Spectator diminishing the significance of the Twitter backlash.
"We're pleased that the Twitter community in Hamilton is passionate and engaged and clearly responsive, but we know there are other people in the community that we need to engage with," she said. "To the couple hundred people on Twitter, we've got a better sense of how we engage."
She also tried to deny that the company didn't know what "HSR" stands for.
"In the course of asking questions on Twitter and promoting the conversation online, we asked for clarification - not because we didn't know what transit was, because we don't want to make assumptions with what people were telling us," she said. "On Twitter, people shorten all sorts of things, so we did just want to clarify."
Please note that the original comment was explicitly in the context of valued City services.
All of this might seem like mere nitpicking, except that this company is being paid $376,000 of Hamiltonians' money to lead a program of citizen engagement on a vitally important discussion about what services Hamiltonians value.
More important, the company's contract includes training 25 City staffers on how to undertake public engagement as part of the "legacy items" that will continue after the contract is over.
It's not too much for us to expect that the company that does this should be good at communicating.
The Dialogue Partners web page advertising their "Civic Engagement Services includes the claim, "We can show you how to better manage emotion and public outrage to make your community engagement and stakeholder engagement programs more meaningful."
I don't know about anyone else, but so far I don't feel that my outrage is being managed that well. For the $376,000 cost of this project, Hamiltonians deserve better.