The Power of a Good Mea Culpa

-by Frank Wolff, Media Relations Director

BP CEO Tony Hayward
“What the hell did we do to deserve this?” BP CEO Tony Hayward

Here’s a PR tip that applies to BP and all businesses big and small: don’t underestimate the power of a good mea culpa.

Merriam-Webster defines mea culpa as a formal acknowledgment of personal fault or error.

Let’s say you happen to spill a few million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. That requires a super-size mea culpa. That’s the source of a lot of the public’s frustration right now. They’re hearing everything from excuses to rhetoric to things they can’t believe are coming out of the mouth of BP CEO Tony Hayward. Here are some Hayward quotes from a Newsweek story.

“What the hell did we do to deserve this?”

“…the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

“…the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest.”

“…there’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”

And the company wonders why the public is livid?

"The manager at a major electronics store (we’ll call it 'Best Buy') would have been wise to opt for mea culpa"

Mea culpa also does wonders on a smaller scale. For instance, the manager at a major electronics store (we’ll call it “Best Buy”) would have been wise to opt for mea culpa after discovering that a customer (we’ll call him “me”) has been waiting for three weeks for an item to arrive that he was told would arrive two weeks ago. After several unreturned phone calls and two trips to the store, the manager discovered that her expert salesperson ordered the wrong item for the customer and the item that customer really needs can only be ordered online. She could be a graduate of the Tony Hayward school of PR , as she opted for a “not my fault” attitude. The customer was given $5 in free shipping, but all he really wanted was a sincere mea culpa and her best effort to make the situation right.

Regardless of whether you’ve fouled up a customer’s day or fouled an entire ecosystem and the livelihood of thousands of people, the advice is still the same: always start with a good mea culpa.