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When saying sorry is the right thing to communicate

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

For many years, crisis communication experts have advocated saying sorry to victims of corporate crises and accidents. Despite what many lawyers think, these experts know that saying sorry doesn’t create any legal liability. Company spokespersons can express their regrets and show sympathy to the families of the dead and injured without dumping their organization deep into litigation.

They realize that many victims are more infuriated by corporate indifference and lack of sympathy than by a quick acknowledgment of regret and a statement of intention to prevent the problem from occurring again.

Despite this basic psychology, “deny and defend” has been the traditional mantra of malpractice lawyers and insurance companies. US studies have shown that only about 30% of medical errors have been disclosed to patients in the past.

The medical profession has always been conservative, especially in admitting errors. But now at last, doctors are starting to realize that saying sorry is the best way to face up to such problems.

Some leading US medical centers are now advising their medical specialists to promptly disclose medical errors and offer sincere apologies and fair compensation.

They realize that often attempts to conceal errors antagonize patients more than the actual errors. And they realize patients who have been affected are more concerned about the error being prevented in future than any punitive motivation.

The wisdom of this disclosure policy is there for all to see. US hospitals that do implement this new policy of admitting errors are reporting fewer lawsuits and savings in legal costs.

For instance, The New York Times reported that the University of Michigan Health System found claims and lawsuits dropped from 262 to 83 in August 2001 and August 2007 respectively.

Whether the decline was due to disclosure or safer medicine is not known at this stage, but the hospital’s legal costs have dropped by two thirds, and the time taken to close cases has halved.

The lesson for the hospital was that improving patient safety and patient communication is more likely to cure malpractice crises than defensiveness and denial.

Similar experience at the University of Illinois. Errors are treated more as teaching opportunities than matters to sweep under the carpet.

However, many doctors and hospitals are slow to make the change. Most doctors still don’t believe that if they are open and honest with patients they won’t be sued.

In a move to change this, 34 US States have introduced legislation making apologies for medical errors inadmissible in court.

Plaintiff lawyers are also realizing that injured clients benefit when they are compensated quickly, even for lower amounts.

The lesson for communicators is that when your organization or client has made a mistake, admit it! The negative consequences are invariably less than the consequences of denial at all costs. Admitting mistakes makes the organization appear more human and empathetic, especially when management says every effort is being made to prevent the same mistake being made in future.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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