Sorry still seems to be the hardest word

There was an interesting piece in the Daily Telegraph earlier this week by Esther Rantzen in which she questions the “endless demonisation” of Sharon Shoesmith. As most of you will know, Shoesmith was in charge of Children’s Services at Haringey at the time of the infamous Baby P case.

Rantzen argues, not unreasonably, that Shoesmith has become a convenient scapegoat for the failings of others. Looking at it from a communications point of view, it seems to me that both Shoesmith and Haringey made a serious error in not making a prompt public apology.

In the late 1990s I was working with a local authority in the South of England. One morning I got a call from the local evening paper (yes, in those days even medium sized towns had an evening newspaper) asking for a quote for a story they were planning to run that day. The Council had sent out final demands for Council Tax payment to around a dozen people who were dead. Understandably, this was causing considerable distress to the relatives of the deceased.

I quickly found out that the story was indeed true. The Council’s Finance Director was adamant that he wanted to make no comment at all, feeling that any admission of failing would reflect badly on both him and his staff. I was fearful that this approach would lead to an even more negative story and ran the risk of the story going national.   

Thankfully he was persuaded, somewhat reluctantly on his part, to take my advice and apologise. I gave the local paper a brief statement in which the Council apologised for the distress caused and stressed that we would make every effort to avoid a repeat. The story ran on the front page of the local rag, but it wasn’t picked up by the nationals and the he storm soon blew over.

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where the only sensible option is to hold up your hands and say “sorry”. This is a difficult concept for many people in the public sector, particularly those in senior positions, to grasp. The bottom line is that saying sorry is not a sign of weakness, quite the opposite.


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