How to recover from your own Oscars-worthy blunders

John Potter, an associate professor in dispute resolution and conflict management at SMU, explains the art of the effective apology.

By Leslie Barker
Staff writer 

Few of us (and that's being generous) will ever present an Academy Award for best picture. Even fewer will muddle the name on the top-secret card, as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway did in Sunday night's Oscars ceremony.

But we've all had plenty of mortifying moments we wish we could take back, or that make us wish we could slink out the door under the red (or shag; we don't care) carpet. They're part of life; they're part of being human. We make mistakes that we can neither erase nor go back in time to do differently. 

What we can do is apologize. But we need to do that correctly so we don't find ourselves apologizing for the apology.

Potter takes issue with two aspects of the following statement issued Monday  morning by Price Waterhouse Coopers, which oversees the nominations:

"We sincerely apologize to MoonlightLa La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred."

The first part that waves a red flag to Potter is the word "sincerely." 

"I would never allow a client to use the word 'sincerely,' " he says. "What you want to know is that I'm sorry. You don't need the drama." 

In other words, skip the modifiers. Sorry is sorry.

Second, he takes issue with Price Waterhouse Coopers merely promising it will investigate what happened. Were he coaching the company, he says, he'd say, "We're going to investigate, and on this day we'll hold a press conference or issue a report.

"Not fuzzy-wuzzy-we're-going-to-get-a-Ouija-board," he says. "When you're not specific in the remedy" — more about that apology step later — "people will look at that and go, 'I know what they're going to do; they're going to hide it under a rock.' "

Here's what he calls "the easiest rubric to talk about apology," a.k.a. the five Rs to a good "I'm sorry."

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