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The Art of the Apology


By Thomas J. Roach

When An Attack Comes You Can Admit Guilt, Deny The Charge, Ignore The Charge, Or Change The Subject.

Community relations at its best doesn’t fix problems; it avoids them. Still, we spend a lot of time doing damage control. In the ancient study of rhetoric defending oneself is considered half of a speech set called kategoria and apologia. The kategoria is an attack on character, and the apologia is the defense of character.

Communication in the 21st century is much more complicated than it was in the golden age of Greece where attacks on character were limited to speeches given at forums and to passers by in the street. In our world news stories, blog entries, and videos recorded on cell phones and posted on YouTube can all constitute an attack on the character of a person or an organization.

If you want to see a complete selection of contemporary kategoria, just Google the words “Toronto” and “mayor.” This guy’s detractors make angry quarry neighbors look like a welcome committee.

Whether an attack comes from a speech at a town hall meeting or from a blog, character is still character, and there are only a few ways to defend it. One can admit guilt, deny the charge, ignore the charge, or change the subject.

■ It usually doesn’t sit well with the legal department, but the surest way to make an attack on character go away is to admit guilt.

■ Denials usually don’t work. They inevitably lead to more charges and more denials.

■ Ignoring the charge and trying to change the subject only delays and intensifies the damage.

With all three of these options, the argumentative debate itself quickly becomes a bigger story. Worse, what might have been a soon forgotten piece of news minutia transitions into a memory-imbedded ongoing news story. Compare the news coverage following David Letterman’s admission of guilt to Tiger Woods’ year of denials.

Of course, sexual peccadillos usually aren’t a concern for aggregate companies. Instead the aggregate industry deals with workers, neighbors and government agencies voicing kategoria over issues like property damage, safety and health, and noise.

Obviously admitting guilt is only an option when one is guilty and when there isn’t a pending lawsuit. However, when there is no multimillion dollar lawsuit, an admission of guilt and an apology and a plan to avoid further complications are probably the best response.

I once made this point at a conference of quarry owners and managers and spent the rest of the session defending my own character. I told my audience that quarries “no-questions-asked” should offer to replace every broken window for a two or three block radius around their quarry.

It could cost a few thousand dollars a year, but neighbors might start to look at living next to a quarry as a benefit and not a liability. The value of community support when asking for zoning changes could be worth a lot more than the cost of the windows, I said.

Lucky for me, there were no rocks in the room, or I might not have made it out alive.

Whether or not my addition is correct, the point is worth considering. Denying and ignoring detractors usually only exacerbate a problem. Acknowledging a problem makes any further attacks pointless. Think of it as losing the battle in order to win the war.

A good apology takes full responsibility. It is almost an attack on your own position. Anything else looks like an excuse. The basic idea here is to spell out your mistakes so clearly that there is no reason for anyone else to do it for you. It might sound weird or pathetic, but as long as it doesn’t sound argumentative, it should end the debate.

Isaac of Syria, a 7th century religious aesthetic, went into the desert by himself and quarried stone to build a small hut. How did he survive alone in the lawless desert?

“Persecute yourself,” he said, “and your enemies will flee before you.” 

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at .