Craft the perfect public apology

I called my older sister in a panic the day our 18-year-old cat died. We didn't know how to tell our 3-year-old son, and my sister, a child psychologist, had pithy advice: "No BS and don't tell him more than he needs to know."

I called my older sister in a panic the day our 18-year-old cat died. We didn't know how to tell our 3-year-old son, and my sister, a child psychologist, had pithy advice: “No BS and don't tell him more than he needs to know.”

Too bad Tiger Woods and so many other public figures didn't get similar counsel.

Last Friday, Woods became the latest celebrity to join the Mea Culpa Club. Dozens of broadcast networks, cable news outlets and online streams carried his scripted statement live. But he didn't owe most of us an apology – we knew too much already.

Woods and Mark McGwire, who scored some crocodile tears a couple of weeks earlier, are helping make 2010 look a lot like 2009. Among last year's guilty were South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, college basketball coach Rick Pitino, Alex Rodriquez, Michael Vick, and Balloon Boy's parents. They all gathered the media to deliver humbling statements, pleas for forgiveness and – what is most objectionable – sanctimony.

No doubt Woods is abjectly sorry to be publicly humiliated, hurt those closest to him and, by the way, lose millions of dollars in future endorsements. Yet it's not instructive – and not even fun anymore – to witness this sort of spectacle.

All future Mea Culpa members should follow the example set by David Letterman. After his October 1 monologue, Letterman spoke extemporaneously about his shameful actions, and did it with remarkable grace and humor. No false humility, no mentioning of divine powers, nothing that didn't ring true.

And, unlike many still struggling with the fallout from their actions, Letterman's public standing might have actually increased from the incident.

Should your client find himself (notice there are very few women in the Mea Culpa Club) compelled to atone for real or imagined sins in front of every outlet known to mankind, keep in mind the following:

  • There's a lot to be said for authenticity.
  • Get out in front of the story as quickly and as aggressively as possible. Waiting for another shoe to drop – more revelations – never is the right strategy.
  • Keep references to God and your family to a minimum. The public wants to respect your privacy, so stop letting people in to your most intimate thoughts.
  • State your case in the plainest terms. Remember to tell them what you're going to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said.

Part of our job is preparing clients for the worst. But by following these simple tenets, maybe the worst won't be as bad.

Jeffrey Graubard founded New York-based Graubard Group in 1992, specializing in consumer, sports and nonprofit sectors. Clients have included Sports Illustrated and Nike.

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