Media relations

The Pope’s Apology

September 18, 2006 — From a communications standpoint, the Vatican has seriously miscalculated with the Pope’s apology. Here’s why:

1. Saturday’s apology was clearly written by a committee. When that happens, compromises are made to satisfy the committee and the lawyers who inevitably populate it. Those compromises weaken the apology with weasel words to the point where the aggrieved party continues to feel unsatisfied. At the same time, the faithful (whether they are workers, stockholders or happy customers) are left with the impression that management has capitulated. Either apologize or don’t apologize, but don’t look for a safe middle ground—it doesn’t exist.

2. I am not a theologian, so I cannot address the question of papal infallibility. But the speech that caused this controversy was made by the organization’s head, yet Saturday’s apology was delivered by the PR department. That smacks of insincerity, especially considering the Pope’s apology on Sunday.

3. This is not about apologizing for a transgression. The dynamic is that of schoolyard or barroom bully cornering a 98-pound weakling and demanding an apology for splashing invisible mud on his jacket or making eye contact with his girlfriend. The bully doesn’t want an apology. He wants to see how far he can push you.

4. The decentralized structure of Islam means that there is no final authority who can accept the Pope’s apology and end the controversy. As long as one Imam continues to take offense, the issue lives on.

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