Ian Monk: Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Michael Grade said it publicly, as did Jeremy Clarkson. Carol Thatcher refused to say it under the terms required by the BBC, while the head of Haringey Social Services, fired over the death of Baby P, has refused to utter the word.

Ian Monk
Ian Monk

It has been a unique week for public apologies, and one that illustrates how sorry is the hardest word in the PR lexicon to get right.

The scale of outrage at the ITV boss, the Top Gear presenter, the daughter of a former PM and disgraced social services boss Sharon Shoesmith, obviously varied depending on viewpoint. It is interesting to speculate whether football fans were as offended by ITV’s blooper in running ads over a match-winning goal as Labour voters were by Clarkson’s vivid description of Gordon Brown as a ‘one-eyed Scottish idiot’.

Equally it is possible that fewer people were truly upset by Thatcher’s use of the outmoded word ‘golliwog’ than by Shoesmith’s refusal to say sorry for the brutal death of a toddler in her care.

Nevertheless, damage limitation strategies in each case depended on the timing and context of the ‘s’ word.

Grade and Clarkson, both instinctive populists, made quick and fulsome apologies to stem criticism and shift the debate.
Further criticism of Clarkson was limited to mutterings from a few zealously motivated souls who believed he should have apologised for the word idiot (arguably one of the kinder epithets applied to Brown) as well as for the use of the words blind and Scottish. Last laugh to Jeremy.

PR attempts to claim privacy within the BBC’s crowded green room appeared naïve, as did half-hearted and belated attempts to apologise in Thatcher’s own limited terms.

Shoesmith’s refusal to apologise may be more a matter for her own conscience rather than PR judgement.

Nevertheless, the question of when, why and how to apologise publicly is worthy of consideration by PR’s sharpest minds.


Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun

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