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Lessons From Rolling Stone's UVA Debacle

In this photo, University of Virginia students walk to campus past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Rolling Stone is casting doubt on the account it published of a young woman who says she was gang-raped at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party at the school, saying there now appear to be discrepancies in the student's account. (Steve Helber/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this photo, University of Virginia students walk to campus past the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. Rolling Stone is casting doubt on the account it published of a young woman who says she was gang-raped at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party at the school, saying there now appear to be discrepancies in the student's account. (Steve Helber/AP)

My husband, a long time newspaper man and former ombudsman, is in high dudgeon. We can't stop talking about the fact that Rolling Stone printed a defamatory story without corroboration from anyone other than the source.

"The story that appeared in Rolling Stone would have been stopped by an assistant city editor working the overnight shift on the weekend," said my news hound.

I, meanwhile, find myself hyper-focused on the language used in the original statement by the magazine's managing editor, Will Dana, "We have come to the conclusion that our trust in her (the source) was misplaced." He goes on to say that the magazine may have done a disservice to Jackie (the source) in agreeing to her request that it not seek to corroborate her story about a rape that was said to occur.

At our office, a favorite conversation topic is how often people, in the heat of crisis, make matters worse by issuing a tepid statement promulgated as an apology.

In a 24 hour news cycle, the public has come to expect remorse from the top when things go wrong. But an apology is only as good as it is authentic.

Instead of the passive "our trust in her was misplaced," we would have counseled him to be brave. Something like, "We should not have trusted a single source without doing the customary reporting."

And, as for the disservice to Jackie, what about the disservice to the University of Virginia, its administration, its faculty? How about the disservice to the fraternity and to the students? Or, what about the disservice to the readers of Rolling Stone who care about fairness?

Apparently enough people raised the same questions. Two days later, Rolling Stone quietly amended its statement to say that it was "mistaken in honoring Jackie's request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account." It also said, "These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie."

Before this controversy is over, I wouldn't be surprised to see another statement by Rolling Stone.

In a 24 hour news cycle, the public has come to expect remorse from the top when things go wrong. But an apology is only as good as it is authentic.

How a university or a business responds to a crisis is a reflection of its character and may determine whether customers stay loyal or drift to a competitor.

The extent to which an admission of responsibility proves beneficial depends almost entirely upon the sincerity of the apology and the ability to follow a few simple rules.

Find the right voice.
Avoid language that sounds corporate or has phases like, "If I offended anyone, then, I'm sorry."

Adopt a tone of humility.
Among the most famous cases of hubris occured when the former British Petroleum CEO Mark Hayward stated he was "deeply sorry" for the Gulf oil spill, followed shortly by "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I'd like my life back."

Know the audience.
Keep in mind the widely reported example of a telephone company in Tokyo. Following an interruption in service, the company sent a representative to each home to apologize for any inconvenience. While this is rarely possible, it is important that the language used in an apology speaks directly to those affected, whether it is readers, employees or customers. Use as many media channels as are available to get the word out.

Words matter.
Reverend Jesse Jackson has found himself in a position to apologize on a number of occasions and when he does, he seems to find just the right words. This apology was to the point. "Please forgive me. Charge it to my head and not my heart. Be patient with me. God is not finished with me yet."

Get the apology right the first time.
Of course, when all the facts may not yet be known, this is easier said than done. But, when an apology is modified over time, it appears that the company course of conduct is being steered only by public opinion and that its executives have not found their true north.

Related:

Geri Denterlein Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Geri Denterlein is the president of Denterlein, a public relations firm based in Boston.

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