Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
Media coverage of Cardinal George Pell’s evidence at the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child abuse demonstrated they didn't buy his messages.
Radio and TV news ran several clips of Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, giving his testimony. In all of them I felt he came across as cold and unfeeling, or at the very least ‘over-coached’ by his Barristers to ensure he stayed safe.
While it’s appropriate to be sombre with such a serious topic, and particularly in a court of law or a formal enquiry, it’s critical that you are sincere.
Personally, I didn’t feel convinced by him and judging by the public backlash, neither did his critics.
The key insight here is that to be credible you must be passionate and sincere. And that’s not just in an interview, but in a courtroom, a hearing or any strategic communication.
So why wasn’t he seen as convincing and sincere? Well it could be because he broke all of Clarity’s Seven Deadly Sins of apologising.
Let’s examine the Cardinal’s apparent attempt at an apology for accompanying Ballarat priest Gerald Ridsdale to court when Ridsdale pleaded guilty to a raft of child sex offences.
"I regret that it has caused such angst amongst victims…It was never intended to provoke that.”
He is not regretting his action, he is regretting the way others feel about that. And that’s just passing the buck instead of addressing the hurt.
Image for a moment saying to your partner (or hearing him/her say) “I am so sorry you are angry” instead of “I am so sorry I came home drunk last night and forgot your birthday.” Would you get away with that? Would you even try? Pell did, and it flopped.
I also spotted a few examples of the grudging apology – where you say the right words but clearly don’t mean it. In print the words work, but in broadcast is all in the delivery.
The Cardinal declared he was "fully apologetic and absolutely sorry" with all the passion and sincerity usually reserved for thanking your proctologist for a colonoscopy.
But by far his biggest crime against apology was his dexterous use of the ambit apology:
"I think the bigger fault was that nobody would talk about it, nobody would mention it".
No actually, sexual abuse of children ranks a bit above corporate culture. So trying to minimise the offence by 'fessing up to a lesser crime is simply not going to fly.
So how can he communicate more sincerely?
Apologise early, apologise often and apologise authentically: the quicker you act the easier it is, but you have to get it right first time.
Hit the hurt – work out why people are offended and address that pain.
Show you mean it - talk is cheap but what actions will you take to put your skin on the table.