3 ways to prevent your apology from becoming the story

On Wednesday, The Atlantic’s David Frum apologized after accusing The New York Times and other news organizations of faking photos at a Gaza hospital. And then he kept talking. So now we have more stories.

Here are three tips on how to apologize so that your apology doesn’t become the story. Study them, and you may be able to shut down some bad press.

1. Do it. Then hush.

In 2012, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon wrote “How journalists bungle apologies: They keep talking.”

Here is how you apologize: “I’m sorry.” Maybe “We’re sorry.” If your apology includes the words “if,” “but,” or especially “however” it is not an apology. It’s a justification, which is not the same thing.

I’m adding “also” to the list.

Frum started this on Twitter. If he had ended it there, instead of writing a piece for The Atlantic, it would have looked like this (without the link):

2. Include the right stuff in your apology:

In November, Poynter’s Al Tompkins broke down all the kind of apologies we witnessed in 2013. He also included ingredients for how to do it right. They are:

– Act like you mean it
– Promise it won’t happen again
– Explain how you will fix things
– Stop making the same mistakes

3. If you can’t stop talking, for heaven’s sake, don’t include links to fringe websites to back you up.

On Thursday, Adam Weinstein wrote about Frum’s apology for Gawker and took a look at the Online Reputation Management site Frum cites when explaining why he’s skeptical in the first place.

That link in Atlantic senior editor David Frum’s post leads to a most fascinating website, zombietime.com. It’s fascinating because even Wikipedia’s editors call Zombietime “a fringe self-published website,” adding that it “is not a reliable source and should not be used as a reference for anything on Wikipedia except its own article. This includes both text and images.”

As evidence, the Wikipedia critics point out that Zombietime concocted a pro-Israel conspiracy theory about 2006 photos from the Mideast conflict—a theory that hoaxed an Australian foreign minister in much the same way Frum was hooked in last week.

Here are a couple other reactions to Frum’s apology:

Erik Wemple: “It’s precious that in a post about his credulity, Frum would credit himself with skepticism. That’s precisely what he didn’t exercise here.” (The Washington Post)

– From BagNews, which reported on the story earlier this week:

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  • ikonag

    Adam Weinstein cites unreliable Wikipedia as source for why Zombietime is an unreliable source.

  • http://larryfeltonjohnson.typepad.com/ Larry Felton Johnson

    I seem to begin a lot of comments lately with the phrase “It mystifies me …”, and this one is no exception. It mystifies me that many journalists, public officials, and business leaders don’t know how to make a simple apology. I think it was one of the characters in “Game of Thrones” who said “I was taught to disregard everything in a sentence that came before the word “but”. Apologizing is a core communication skill, and a professional writer, of all people, should be able to handle it.

    Business leaders often make apologies which translate as “I’m sorry you people are so stupid you can’t tell what’s really going on here”.

    Frum’s apology is “Yeah, I screwed up in this particular instance, but I had a GOOD SOLID REASON for it.”