Mistakes Happen

January 27, 2012

by Dan Ward

There has already been plenty written about the erroneous early reports of Joe Paterno’s death, and how the media failed in reporting such major news without confirmation.  I’m not going to pile on.

Instead, I want to use it as an example of how to own up to a mistake, because at least a couple of people involved in this mess did so exceptionally well.

We’ve all made mistakes … a release that goes out with a typo, a poorly worded and poorly timed comment, misstated facts and figures.  It’s how we deal with those mistakes that set us apart. You can take the deny/deflect route, or you can take responsibility for your actions and ensure your organizations and clients that it won’t happen again.

In our Message Matrix® training sessions, we often use Lee Iacocca as an example, who upon learning that Chrysler managers had been illegally detaching odometers on “test” cars later sold as new, told the public “Did we screw up? You bet we did … I’m damn sorry it happened, and it will never happen again.” His direct and plain-spoken approach to apologizing for mistakes helped to avert a media crisis. Indeed, he was praised for his honesty.

Compare that to the comments from the managing editor of Onward State, the online Penn State student news site that first ran the erroneous reports of Paterno’s death. Devon Edwards’ letter of apology, which included his immediate resignation, includes several Iacocca-style comments. “Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.” “All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility.” “I take full responsibility for the events that transpire.”

Compare also to the tweets from CBSSports.com journalist Adam Jacobi, who says he was fired by CBS for his role in publishing the Paterno death reports. “I’m sorry to everyone, most importantly the Paterno family, for how it ended.” “In the end, CBS had to let me go for the Paterno story going out the way it did, and I understand completely.”

Mistakes happen, and as Jacobi and Edwards have learned, they can have severe consequences. But my guess is that both will be judged not by the mistakes they made, but by the gracious manner in which they owned up to, and took responsibility for, those mistakes.


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