After the now infamous “cookie exchange” between Dr. Stephen Duckett and the media here in Alberta, I wrote a post about the incident and expressed sympathy for the communications staff as I imagined they were wondering how to advise Dr. Duckett on regaining credibility. I didn’t believe there was much he could do. Immediately following the incident, he did post an apology on his official blog. This would seem to be the best thing to do under the circumstances, but I think it’s fair to say that his apology fell flat. That got me thinking about apologies and how to do them well.

First, since the ill-advised comments were captured by the media on video and posted on YouTube, a simple written apology, posted in an obscure location on the web was clearly insufficient. The best way to counter an embarrassing video on YouTube is to record and upload your own video so that the audience can look you in the eye and see that you are not always munching on baked goods and behaving badly. If he was truly sorry for his remarks, this would have been conveyed in his facial expressions, body language and he could have spoken in his own voice. People would view the video and perhaps, if he was sincere, they would realize that Dr. Duckett is a human being who made a mistake and he is sorry. In the absence of this video, people will be left with the cookie video to remember Duckett by.

Leaving a lasting impression

I just quickly typed in Dr. Duckett’s name into Google and guess what appeared at the top of the list? What an awful legacy. A YouTube video is online and top of mind until it is replaced with something. Also, due to the nature of YouTube, there is a good chance that if he had recorded a video apology, it would have been viewed by large numbers of people and would have appeared next to the “bad” cookie video automatically. For someone who knows how to use tags and keywords effectively on line, the video could have been linked with Dr. Duckett. A missed opportunity to regain credibility, if there ever was one.

Get right to the point

Let’s look at Dr. Duckett’s apology in more detail:

“On November 19, we had a meeting of clinical and operational leaders to develop new protocols to reduce Emergency Department wait times. The meeting made great progress. That success has to some extent been overshadowed by my poor responses to the media afterwards, which I deeply regret and for which I apologize unreservedly. I certainly respect the media’s right to ask timely questions in the public interest.”

In a situation like this, it’s best to just get right to the point. The first two sentences are an attempt to get out the message that the “superboard” is trying to do the right thing. But no one is listening. They just want to hear you say you’re sorry. The placement of this information at the beginning is a waste. It will not register with most readers.

And wow–talk about understating the damage. The success of the meeting has “to some extent” been overshadowed by his poor responses to the media. The success of the meeting was totally obliterated! The apology is not going very well so far. The apology continued:

“We had made a decision earlier that a senior physician would provide comments to the media after the session. There were other issues and questions arising that day. However, it has been my practice that because I am not an elected official, I do not respond to comments from elected officials. I should have stopped to make all this clear.”

Again, this is a misfire. Now, Dr. Duckett tries to explain that even though he is the senior most official responsible for the delivery of health care services across the entire province of Alberta, he does not “respond to comments from elected officials.” So, he does not respond to comments from those who represent those who are paying his salary? This is not a statement that generates a lot of sympathy and completely misses the point. People were shocked that Dr. Duckett would not answer questions about an unfolding health care crisis, whether it’s because he is eating a cookie or because he has an inane personal rule that doesn’t allow him to respond–both are bad answers. Previously, he stated that he respected the media’s right to ask the questions, but apparently, he is reiterating his position that he would have refused to answer them even if he wasn’t eating a cookie. Sigh.

He never actually uses the “s” word

“Most regrettably, I did not convey what I deeply feel, which is the greatest respect for the difficult challenges our health care providers face every day, and their innumerable achievements, and what those challenges and achievements mean for our patients and their families. When I got back to my desk I finalized and uploaded a blog which conveys my feelings in my words. We are all striving to do our best, but I know I got it wrong this time. Please accept this apology.”

Despite the attempt at sincerity in these last two paragraphs, Dr. Duckett never actually uses the word “sorry” anywhere in his statement/blog post. Another opportunity lost. Then, he adds on the words “this time” to the sentence, “I got it wrong” which sounds suspiciously like an attempt at reminding everyone that he has been right a bunch of other times! He was only wrong this one time! This is a classic mistake when apologizing. Just say you’re sorry. Don’t engage in a sales pitch about your record of being wrong or being right.

As predicted, Dr. Duckett has now been fired as the CEO and President of Alberta Health Services. He will receive more than $500,000 as a payout, courtesy of the taxpayers of Alberta. Would a video with a proper and sincere apology from Dr. Duckett been able to save his job and Albertans some money? It does seem like the situation was almost impossible to recover from, given the other events that were unfolding at the same time. It is an interesting communications question to consider.

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