Mea not culpa

O’Reilly flips the apology script

Jeffrey Denny

Reading Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ fascinating tick-tock re-account of why her inevitable presidency wasn’t, I’m at the early part where she’s first getting hammered for the email thing. You know the story doesn’t get better.

At this point, her support is tanking. The email question is swamping her message. Trust issues and Bernie are rising. Panicked, her staff is beseeching her to apologize in a real, full-throated way. Clinton resists, insisting she went by the books and reluctant to hand enemies a bigger club (“See?! She admitted it!”). Finally, after a few tries, she concedes, “I should have used two accounts. That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility.”

Would an earlier apology have changed Clinton’s fate? Especially after FBI Director James Comey’s ham-handed October surprise? Maybe not. But I’m starting to think twice about the official mea culpa. Maybe the standard public apology playbook is NOT the right way to go. Maybe United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz was right in his initial response: Don’t apologize. Defend and blame.

This, of course, flies in the face of Crisis Communications 101, which critics of every mishandled mishap pile on to turgidly lecture about after the fact. Here’s one irritating example following the recent United flap:

“In PR, there’s a standard disaster-response playbook. When a horrible story breaks, the drill is no-brain: Respond quickly, honestly, within the hour, on all channels — internal, external, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Avoid getting defensive, making excuses or blaming the victim. Cop and apologize like you mean it, like you need to with your spouse and kids, not with lawyered-up caveats and passive voice that mistakes might have been made mistakenly by someone. Then pledge to find out what went wrong, disclose it, fix it, and explain what you’re doing to make sure it never happens again.”

That bloviator was me, bringing needless coals to Newcastle, offering my typical penetrating glimpse into the obvious.

Sitting on the outside of a communications crisis, judging what should have been done, is easier than being on the inside, helping to manage and message the crisis. I mean the kind of crisis that commands headlines, loses shareholder value as the stock price plummets, demoralizes employees, and destroys a company’s reputation in spite of millions spent in brand management and corporate social responsibility efforts.

I’ve been smack in the middle of these crises. To respond, you have to balance a spectrum of stakeholders. Board members scream at you as investors scream at them to fix it. Employees you encouraged to believe in the company, and are bewildered by reports of wrongdoing, want a hearty, smack-down defense. Senior executives who don’t understand how the media works — it’s not their thing; they’re business people — want their communications colleagues to hit back hard. From the inside, screw-ups are not so simple/easy to handle and issue the plain, “We were wrong. We’re sorry.”

But then I look at a new, emerging model for handling communications crises that seems in ascent: Damn the torpedoes.

The phrase comes from Union Admiral David Farragut who won the Civil War battle of Mobile Bay, pivotal for capturing the Confederacy’s last major open port to the Gulf of Mexico. While his fleet hesitated after losing the USS Tecumseh , Farragut— strapped to the mast of his ship like Odysseus— ordered the warships to keep advancing. Success ensued. Farragut went on to be one of President Lincoln’s military leaders and pallbearers. Today, thousands of Washington, D.C., lawyers, lobbyists and communications strategists pass by his statue at Farragut Square downtown or take the two metro stops that bear his name.

Farragut’s charge to sail forth, no matter what, might be the new crisis communications strategy and playbook.

How else to explain Bill O’Reilly’s angry, middle-finger, non-apology amid his defenestration by Fox, blaming the victims who had the temerity to step forward? After he and Fox reportedly paid about $13 million to settle sexual harassment suits brought by five women and complaints by others?

Consider the statement by his lawyer, Marc Kasowitz: “Bill O’Reilly has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America.”

That’s pretty strong, certainly not in the crisis communications apology playbook. So you might ask, who is Marc Kasowitz driving the O’Reilly brand and message?, his law firm’s website, proudly explains in this squib:

The Wall Street Journal has profiled Marc Kasowitz in the article ‘Donald Trump’s Go-To Guy for His Toughest Legal Battles.’ The article, noting Kasowitz’s reputation as ‘an aggressive litigator,’ highlights his representation of President-elect Trump and his companies in numerous matters over the past 15 years. In the article, Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s general counsel, describes Marc Kasowitz as ‘a guy you go to when you have complex, intricate legal problems,’ who has resolved issues for Mr. Trump and his companies behind the scenes ‘countless’ times.”

So as his attorney proudly reports, the President of the United States and his businesses have had “complex, intricate legal problems” he fixed. Noted. (Also sounds like what conservatives accused about the Clintons.)

As ABA Journal further reported this past January,

“In one suit that attracted press attention, Kasowitz sued an author in 2006 over allegations that Trump was worth less than $1 billion, The Wall Street Journal reports. More recently Kasowitz wrote a letter on Trump’s behalf demanding that the New York Times retract an article about alleged groping incidents. Kasowitz also helped Trump keep divorce records sealed, did some work in a case alleging fraud by Trump University, and sued Trump’s Hong Kong business partners over a Manhattan property.”

A-ha! This explains everything!

The Kasowitz no-apology approach and retention by both Trump and O’Reilly helps to explain the former’s odd defense of the latter. More important, the attack strategy makes sense of Trump’s defensive tweets, declarations that defy facts, slamming those who raise legitimate questions, and refusal to bow to humility and accept that mortals can be wrong sometimes. Not to mention his direction or free rein to Spicer, Conway, et al to defend, deny and spin dervishly, and shout outs to his Fox/Breitbart/alt-right/Trump country amen chorus. offers further understanding of the O’Reilly/Trump communications strategy. It warns that being defensive about your decisions gives power to another, demonstrates a lack of confidence in your choices/creations/principles, and shows weakness. “Never explain,” it quotes Elbert Hubbard, “Your friends do not need it, and your enemies will not believe you anyway.”

So don’t expect a Trump apology for anything, any time soon, or ever, no matter what. It’s not manly. Male or female, only weak sob sisters apologize, and when they do, you slam them.

Maybe Hillary Clinton’s initial political instincts were right to avoid apologizing. And maybe Bill O’Reilly’s icky Troglodytic instincts are too. Maybe apologies are stupid, the refuge of suckers and saps. Nobody wants a sob sister leading the country or pandering righteously to our nasty sides.

Look what happened to Anthony Weiner. “I have made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people that I cared about the most,” he said, “and I am terribly sorry. I am deeply ashamed of my terrible judgment and my actions.” That’s a pretty solid apology. And maybe language O’Reilly and his lawyer could/should have considered. But O’Reilly without such apology walks away from Fox with $25 million. Where is Weiner?

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer