Whoops!  The web is all a-twitter with the gaffe the popular period television program “Downton Abbey” recently made. The show posted a publicity photo online of two main characters dressed in early-20th-century formal wear, standing in front of a mantle that displayed … a misplaced plastic water bottle. The resulting shares of news stories, blog posts, Facebook mentions, tweets and emailed links was definitely not how the show expected to gain word-of-mouth press.

But what they did next, almost instantly, was turn their mistake into a bit of public relations brilliance. The entire cast was photographed dressed in their everyday clothing and hairstyles while holding water bottles. They poked fun at themselves and giggled along with the rest of the world.

Mistakes happen. How they are handled is what’s memorable. With literally the eyes of the world upon you at all times in this digital age, quick reactions are critical. Delaying a response – or, even worse, ignoring the need for it – creates the potential for that mistake to blow up into a full-on crisis situation.

The Power of an Apology 

My colleague Kevin Aschenbrenner offers several ideas to use in the wake of mistakes that the media inadvertently make. But what do you do when it’s your law firm that makes the mistake? 

The most important thing you can do is apologize. Immediately. Sincerely. With some sort of resulting action. “I’m sorry, and here is what I will do about it.” To do this requires assessing the reaction to your mistake.

For example, a San Antonio personal injury law firm exercised poor judgment when it placed an ad in Maxim magazine insinuating that our nation’s truckers are serial killers who are responsible for countless highway deaths and accidents. The firm’s intent was to reach an audience of individuals harmed by irresponsible drivers. The trucking industry raised righteous indignation, turning to social media to express their anger and frustration at the firm’s mistaken assumption. Taking the industry’s reaction seriously, the law firm quickly issued a public apology for the offense, acknowledging its mistake, and scrapped the ad.

While the law firm’s reason for the ad’s message backfired, they still handled their mistake gracefully and promptly, with immediate action to avoid the need for further crisis management. Also, however misguided the ad’s message – the perception of large numbers of catastrophic trucking accidents – the result gave trucking and transportation industry groups an opportunity to provide statistics showing that 80 percent of the large trucks involved in accidents in 2012 actually were not even at fault. 

Don’t Play the Blame Game

Apologies are powerful, both when they are given properly and when they are not. An empty or cold apology could do even worse damage by increasing the likelihood of legal action or widespread public badmouthing. For an apology to work, the offended audience needs to feel heard and, more importantly, see that the apology results in the delivery of some sort of good-faith action to make amends.

Last year, a large law firm got publicly hand-slapped for not apologizing when firm emails were made known about overbilling, generating lots of national business and industry trade-media attention. The firm blamed the attorneys’ attempt at humor. It denied overbilling. It placed responsibility on a third party and also pointed a critical finger at the client involved. Seriously? Wrong, wrong, wrong! Client relationships, credibility, trust, ethics – all damaged. Apologizing in the right way would have avoided all of that.

Finally, apologies don’t always have to be formal written statements, but they always are essential in a crisis management plan. “Downton Abbey” apologized through the cast photo, visually expressing mea culpa in a fun and lighthearted way. Taking it a step further, they are using their water bottle mishap to raise awareness of the international charity WaterAid.org.

When managing a law firm crisis, accept responsibility, assess the audience’s reaction and any potential for damage, and seek opportunities to do better and do good. Want to chat about how to handle a mistake your firm or an attorney made? I promise not to share it on social media! Just contact Vivian Hood at vhood@jaffepr.com.