Media training: What you can learn from one of the quickest apologies in British politics

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What you can learn from one of the quickest apologies in British politics

It surely must be some sort of record for a new political party to have to issue an apology just five hours after it was formed.

But that was the situation The Independent Group, created by seven MPs who quit the Labour party, found itself in on Monday after Angela Smith ‘misspoke’ during a BBC interview.

The Penistone MP was discussing racism on Politics Live when she said ‘it’s not just about being black or a funny tinge…’ before cutting herself off and adding ‘from the BAME community.

That comment sparked a racism row which received plenty of attention in traditional media and a backlash on social media:

 

New independent MP embroiled in a race row just two hours after quitting Labour Daily Mail

Labour rebel Angela Smith sparks race row by saying some people have ‘funny tinge’ The Sun

Labour MP quits party because it’s ‘racist’, immediately refers to ‘people who are a funny tinge’ during BBC interview Joe

Independent Group MP Angela Smith sparks racism row after referring to black people as having a ‘funny tinge’ Evening Standard

 

 

 

A few hours after the interview blunder, Ms Smith apologised in a brief video posted on her own Twitter account.

She said: “I have seen the clip from Politics Live.  I am very sorry about any offence caused and I am very upset that I misspoke so badly.

“It is not what I am. I am committed to fighting racism wherever I find it in our society.”

 

 

While it is good that she said sorry relatively quickly, the apology itself leaves a lot to be desired - and not just because it is just 17 seconds long.

“I’m very sorry about any offence caused,” is one of those conditional apologies, which suggests that perhaps no-one actually took offence about the remark, or that those who are upset are just being over-sensitive.

We see these often when organisations are dealing with bad news and crisis media management incidents.

Variations of this non-apology apology include ‘I’m sorry for any inconvenience caused’ and ‘we are sorry if any offence was caused’.

These sorts of phrases can all imply that an organisation is not completely convinced it has done something wrong, or could be seen as an attempt to play down the significance of what has happened.

Another apology that falls into this area is the ‘we would like to apologise’ one. It always leaves you wondering when they will actually get on with saying sorry.”

 

If a brand or individual is going to say sorry, it needs to look like they mean it. In the social media age, other people will be quick to let them know if they don’t think it is sincere or meaningful.

Reassurance is also a crucial component of an effective apology, whether it is a reputational issue like this or a bigger crisis media management incident.

And Ms Smith looked to include some reassurance in the video apology with the ‘I am committed to fighting racism wherever I find it in our society’ line.

But that would be much more impactful if it went on to include some examples of the work she has done and is continuing to do on this issue.

“Messages without examples are just rhetoric” is a line you may well hear on one of our media training courses and the same applies here.

 

Ms Smith appeared on Sky News 24 hours later and faced a question about her remarks, and blamed the comment on being "very, very tired." Spokespeople and organisations are often tempted to try to explain their actions. But there is a fine line between explanation and excuse and anything that sounds remotely like the latter will only weaken an apology. 

 

 

 

Resignations, bickering, apologies and uncertainty may all be a regular feature of British politics at the moment, but it also continues to produce regular lessons for others who may appear in front of the media. 

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our highly practical crisis communication training.

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