Self-Criticism: Friend, Not Foe

Photo of a mock trial by Penn State Law Via Flickr

I may not have lived in New York for a decade, but I continue to follow the goings-on there with interest, particularly those of the religious Jewish community and the developing stories about its harsher realities and painful personal stories. I know firsthand how closed they are, and that the transparency is not voluntary. 

There are many reasons why religious organizations and other social institutions avoid public admission of guilt. As Boston University history professor Richard Landes writes:

"Public admission of fault can provoke a powerful sense of humiliation, and involves an obligation to cease the erroneous behavior and attitudes. Most people actively dislike admitting error, fault, or failure, and will go to great lengths to avoid public concessions." 

But it does make me more engaged, intentional or not.

In the realm of public relations we know the critical importance of self-criticism to a company's balance sheet.  Early and substantive accountability, especially during a crisis, builds that intangible factor called "goodwill" or "reputation" and turns negative situations into positive ones.

A recent report from UK's Chartered Institute of Management Accountants puts it this way (note that these are accountants and not "spinmeisters"):

"To manage the quality of their reputation, organisations must...ensure that they look for opportunities for positive news especially in the face of bad."

Some companies get it right. The classic case is Tylenol's immediate and costly $100 million recall in response to cyanide-laced capsules in 1982. 

But it's not always about spending money. Sometimes it's about proactively jumping into a controversy where you could easily be painted as part of the problem. Consider that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg weighed in publicly, to a foreign publication, with a response to concerns raised over revelations about U.S. government surveillance activities.

"The (US) government response was, 'Oh don't worry, we're not spying on any Americans.' Oh, wonderful: that's really helpful to companies trying to serve people around the world, and that's really going to inspire confidence in American internet companies. I thought that was really bad. We are not at the end of this. I wish that the government would be more proactive about communicating. We are not psyched that we had to sue in order to get this and we take it very seriously."

Consider that Zuckerberg is famous for saying that "the age of privacy is over" and his company has been the target of repeated privacy concerns. Yet by speaking up before others can target him, asserting vague action and criticizing his own government, he protects himself in the eyes of his core audience -- millennials -- who "trust people over brands."

And yet, despite all that we know about "good PR practice," companies and people routinely run, hide, lie, manipulate, obfuscate, delay and even attack the victim to deflect blame. 
  • Despite dangerous acceleration problems that put customers' lives at risk, Toyota "effectively slept at the wheel" until the CEO was forced to apologize. At the time one analyst said, "Not taking ownership of the problems or not even acknowledging the problems...clearly made matters much worse for them now."
  • In the case of the BP oil spill, executives offered impossible, non-credible feel-good statements and narcissistic complaints like the CEO saying "I'd like my life back."
  • We saw this in the case of Penn State, as a pedophile spent decades recruiting at-risk children and the university kept him employed, on premises and around young people. 
Professor Landes notes that in an effort to escape blame, guilty parties scapegoat the innocent:

"We all develop elaborate means to protect ourselves from such public shame and obligation, by rationalizing or finger-pointing at some other party....The extreme expressions of such efforts to avoid responsibility involve scape-goating and demonizing, in which the sacrifice of the assigned 'guilty party' is necessary to cover our own refusal to admit any fault."

What this means in practice, unfortunately, is that whistleblowers and victims alike get mowed under if it keeps the predator solvent. In a high-profile sex abuse scandal involving an influential member of the Hasidic Williamsburg community, the Grand Rabbi (who has since fled the country) vilified the young female victim rather than her convicted offender.

Wrongdoers also minimize the damage done. One commenter translated and shared a note about this common attitude among the ultra-Othodox Hasidic community: "All those who were abused are able to drink their coffee and eat their wonderful breakfasts; they are in good spirits."

Secrecy may work for some time, but over time there is inevitably a critical counter-reaction.

Elizabeth Warren is a well-known progressive Democratic Senator from the State of Massachusetts. She is ideologically aligned with President Obama in many ways. And yet in a recent speech, she opposed his political nominee for U.S. Trade Representative. The problem was not ideology but approach: The USTR is currently too secretive, and she wants to see someone appointed who will clearly address that. 

Warren notes that she has encountered disagreement from those who fear public debate of controversial policies and agreements will stop progress. Her response: That thinking is wrong, even "backwards":

"If transparency would lead to widespread public opposition to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States."

Good communication is reflexive - that is, it questions its own assumptions without bias. It is also efficient, by sweeping away the lies and machinations that perpetuate inefficient and expensive bureaucratic machines. In the words of Professor Landes:
  • "Self-criticism stands at the heart of any experiment in civil society."
  • "Only when we can acknowledge errors and commit to avoiding making them again, can we have a learning curve. 
  • "Only when scholars can express their criticism of academic colleagues, and those criticized are able to acknowledge error, can scientific and social thinking develop.
  • "Only when religious believers can entertain the possibility that they may not have a monopoly on truth...can various religions live in peace and express their beliefs without fear of violence.
  • "Only when political elites are willing to accept negative feedback from people who do not have their power, only when the press can oppose those who control public decision-making...
...can a government reasonably claim to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

* All opinions my own.