‘Mistakes were made’ is not an apology, it’s an evasion of responsibility

As the latest scandal to engulf a large organisation rolls on - in this case the Commonwealth Bank of Australia - Tony Jaques, an issues and crisis management expert looks at how (and why) so many business leaders get the apology so wrong.

Facing one of the worst scandals to hit a major financial institution for a long time, Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev admitted “mistakes were made”. It’s no genuine apology, and seems more than somewhat inadequate given the allegation that his bank was used to wash dirty money for criminal gangs and possibly even terrorists.

CommBank CEO Ian Narev

Issuing a non-apology during an issue or crisis can sometimes be more damaging to reputation and recovery than no apology at all, and “mistakes were made” seems to be a current favourite.

For any organisation or individual seriously trying to manage an issue or crisis, this is a pale imitation of a genuine explanation. In fact social commentator Mark Memmot has called it the “king of non-apologies”.

Nixon: “We did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so”

It has been famously used by President Richard Nixon to justify the Watergate scandal, British Prime Minister David Cameron to comment on UK Middle East policy, and American General David Richards trying to explain how an air strike killed 70 Afghan civilians. Plus, of course, by a conga-line of celebrities and sports stars trying to avoid a proper apology.

There’s even a book entitled Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. As the authors concluded: “If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else.”

Responding to a high-profile abuse case in 2014, Catholic Cardinal George Pell’s answer was slightly improved when he said: “Mistakes were made by me and by others in the church.” Better, Mr Pell, but still not as good as a simple: “I made mistakes.”

This is certainly not the only popular non-apology, and much has been written about that other favourite avoidance phrase “it is regrettable” as opposed to “I am really sorry”.

A real apology shows you’re sincerely sorry for the mistake made and that you’ve learned from it, while “it’s regrettable” puts your lawyers at ease knowing that you aren’t directly admitting guilt.

However, “mistakes were made” is a champion sorry excuse for an apology, which seems to be gaining in currency, and there are some good reasons why you should stop using it: firstly, that it tries to evade or divert personal responsibility.

Secondly, it conveys no compassion whatsoever, and it doesn’t in any way substitute for a genuine, sincere apology.

Not only that, but it doesn’t indicate any commitment not to make the same mistakes again.

To top it all off, it’s a statement of the blindingly obvious. Of course mistakes were made. That’s why you’re in the spotlight.

So next time an organisation or individual in trouble says “mistakes were made,” the best response should be: “Yes, and you just made another one”.

Dr Tony Jaques is a Melbourne-based issue and crisis management expert


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.