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Paul Masterman: A sincere 'sorry' seems to be the hardest word

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To all whom may be affected, can I apologise unreservedly because due to circumstances beyond my control this column will be rude about the S word: Sorry.

From Grenfell to Windrush, from Zuckerberg to TSB, it now seems the first rule of PR is to go as a penitent before the media scrum and say sorry.

Every PR professional in the public services, faced with advising a leader on what to say when inevitably things go wrong, will make sure that one of the first lines is a well-crafted sentence apologising genuinely, unreservedly or without qualification. And, of course, lessons will always be learned.

Even in everyday life, people are always saying sorry to us. “I’m sorry you’ve had to wait,” says the man at the supermarket till. “Sorry we are dealing with high call volumes,” croaks the recorded voice before switching back to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Overall this has to be a good thing. The days of the I-Know-Best authority figure blustering his way through a defence and failing to admit the human cost of his organisation’s error of judgment have, thankfully, gone.

Public institutions are accountable to us, the little people, and need to come clean when they have done wrong.

When this is genuinely meant, it can be the start of an organisation putting things right and changing its ways.

After days of silence from the council, the new Kensington & Chelsea RBC leader Elizabeth Campbell (Con) probably got it right after the Grenfell Tower fire. “The first thing I want to do is I want to apologise,” she said. “This is our community and we have failed it when people needed us the most. So, no buts, no ifs, no excuses – I am truly sorry.”

But when the bankers appeared before MPs following the 2008 financial crash, they had been clearly been briefed up to their eyeballs by media trainers and their uncomfortable sorrys just appeared to be part of a script.

And recently the TSB chairman was clearly reading from his prepared talking points when he was grilled by the Treasury select committee on the bank’s ICT crisis. “I am sorry for letting our customers down (it says here),” he appeared to say.

Then there is The-Sorry-Not-Sorry of: “It was never my intention to cause distress but if I have, then I am truly sorry.”

Or the sorry that actually means: “I’m sorry that other people let me down and I apologise that I am the one left carrying the can.”

So, I’m sorry, saying sorry is not always enough. Actions, as the cliché goes, are worth a thousand words.

Or as Ali MacGraw didn’t say in the 1970 classic film Love Story: “Communications means not always having to say you’re sorry.”

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