There's a right way and a wrong way to apologize

The recent DUI arrests of two politicians reminds us that sooner or later, you screw up and it's time to make amends. But be careful: A badly-handled mea culpa can make things worse.
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Seattle City Council candidate Venus Velázquez. (

The recent DUI arrests of two politicians reminds us that sooner or later, you screw up and it's time to make amends. But be careful: A badly-handled mea culpa can make things worse.

Last Wednesday night, Oct. 17, when City Council candidate Venus Velázquez was pulled over by a Seattle police officer for alleged drunken driving, she had less than 24 hours to decide strategy for one of the trickiest decisions in politics: the public apology.

As a professional public affairs consultant, Velázquez knew the calculus: Going public just puts a bigger spotlight on the incident, but saying nothing sends a message that can be very damaging. For starters, silence in our culture is often taken as guilt, or at least lets others define how the incident is viewed. That's why it's baffling that Seattle City Council member Richard McIver has said almost nothing in public about his recent domestic-violence charge beyond this:

Domestic violence is a very serious issue. At this time I will not comment on the charges being brought against me except to say I will be pleading not guilty at my arraignment. I am cooperating fully with the investigation. I am asking the media to please respect my family's privacy.

In such situations, there is tremendous pressure from the media and supporters to say something. But what? If you do make a public statement, do you admit everything and throw yourself on the mercy of voters? Or do you pull a Bill Clinton: "I did not have driving relations with that automobile."

Having run for the Seattle City Council in 2005, I can imagine the anguish felt by Velázquez, completely apart from the issue of the DUI. She's spent a year calling people for money and criss-crossing the city asking for support. It's a huge exercise, and tough on friends and family. In her fiercely contested race with Bruce Harrell, for the seat Peter Steinbrueck is vacating, all that was at risk because – properly so – people no longer tolerate drunken driving.

Typically, rumors of such arrests race through the police precinct and whip through newsrooms and political offices. So Velázquez not only had legal and personal issues to work through, she also had to decide with her advisors on a public strategy.

Not surprisingly, the public statement at this point can get far more attention than anything said by the campaign. Few voters follow doorbelling and campaign appearances, but almost everybody suddenly learns your name and gets a sketchy sense of the incident. They know the script for cops when stopping a driver. They can imagine that moment, put themselves in that position, and assess your conduct.

No matter if it's a local case or a huge national controversy, the public apology can take one or more of several forms:

  1. Fight. Don't apologize. Attack whoever makes the allegation. Minimize their credibility. Make them suspect. Clinton used this repeatedly during the "Bimbo Eruptions." Long term for him, it worked. It helped that his GOP accusers went overboard, making him the victim.
  2. Apologize if anyone feels hurt, but not for any actual conduct. "I regret that you feel bad about the incident." Professional athletes often use that line.
  3. Say "mistakes were made" but don't say by whom. Ronald Reagan did this with Iran Contra.
  4. Take full responsibility and offer an unconditional apology. The model for this would be former Washington Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge after a drunken driving arrest in 2003.
  5. Offer a measured apology for your conduct but stop short of specifically accepting guilt to the charge if it's in court. That's what Velázquez did with her posting on her Web site:

Dear Supporters,

Tuesday night, I was cited for driving under the influence. I take this charge very seriously and accept full responsibility for my actions.

Today, I want to apologize to all of you, who have supported me since I began this campaign, given me your trust and invested so much of yourselves in this journey.

I am more sorry about this incident than I can express in words. I am also sorry for the impact this will have on you, my supporters. I would never intentionally put others at risk or violate the great trust so many of you have given me.

And I respect the system that will ultimately judge my actions.

I am committed to serving you, the voters and the city of Seattle. I will continue to talk about the issues that matter and why I decided to seek a place on the city council–but not here. Here I accept responsibility and hope you will accept my apology. And I hope I will continue to have your support on November 6th.


King County Council member Jane Hague faced a similar dilemma with her June 2 DUI arrest. Her problem may have been even worse since the arresting officer claimed that the Eastside Republican was belligerent. The politics are offset by the weak opposition she faces from Democrat-at-least-for-today Richard Pope.

After news broke of Hague's arrest, she issued a statement saying she "was very sorry this incident occurred" but would not say more for legal reasons. Later, she changed strategy. She met with individual reporters and told them she was apologizing for her conduct and would apologize to the arresting officer.

In interviews about their respective cases, both Hague and Velázquez sought to build sympathy by saying they were imperfect individuals. "I hope that the public understands that it's not easy to sit down in front of you," Hague told the Seattle Times. "You're recording history and I'm saying, 'Hey, I've got warts, I'm sorry about this.'" Velázquez made a similar point with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "It's for the voters to decide whether this mistake is enough to disqualify me from serving them. So many times, in these situations, we've said, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'"

Velázquez gained points with the public by praising the officers for their professionalism. She lost points by claiming, on the first day of publicity, that she had a relatively clean driving record and no speeding tickets. The Times said she had a speeding ticket in 1995. The P-I reported that she had 11 traffic tickets in 13 years.

Whatever your strategy is, the general rules are:

  • Get the facts about your behavior and what others might say. Don't say anything that will hurt you more.
  • Get your story out before another turn of the news cycle. Make it a one-day story, not a continuing public discussion.
  • If you're hedging on any part of the problem, make it seem like you aren't. So accept "full responsibility" even if the cup is half full.
  • If you are accepting responsibility, mean it. Take real steps to make sure it never happens again. If punishment is appropriate, take it with grace and humility.
  • Pray for something else to knock your problem off page one or the TV news, like, say, a big wind storm.
  • Pray that voters bring to your campaign the compassion, decency, and sense of forgiveness that, previously, your darker self wanted to be denied your opponent for his flaws or mistakes.

And if Mr. Peabody and Sherman offer the Wayback Machine, get in, go back, and remember to give someone sober the keys to your car. You might save a life, and your career.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.