Posted: May 29, 2006
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Article SummaryThis is a postscript to the previous posting (, which was a set of articles on my little corner of Australia’s AWB controversy. After publication of the “Draft Statement of Contrition” that AWB managers developed, based partly on my advice, a number of Australian newspapers and broadcast stations contacted me for interviews. They all wanted to ask about my work with AWB, so I declined to be interviewed. But Geoff Elliott said he’d stick to generic questions about what I normally advise companies who have attracted public outrage. So I talked to him. The resulting article is very short. But Elliott got my approach basically right. He even got right (not with my help) what virtually every other journalist on the story got wrong: that AWB’s draft statement was “an admission of moral responsibility, not an admission of guilt.”

Master of sorry management

The Australian, May 20, 2006

Sure, saying sorry is a hard thing to do, but for $US650 ($853) an hour – and throw in first-class airfares and hotel accommodation – Peter Sandman will teach you how. His work in crisis management in the business world is well-known – landing at corporate headquarters in a disaster, ready to clean up and find ways to placate the public outrage.

The New Jersey-based corporate guru is the man who inspired the mea culpa that AWB never used: a long letter saying sorry.

The letter, which was released this week after AWB’s court action to keep it under wraps failed, was vintage Sandman. It’s all contrition, but no admission of liability.

“There's usually a way – if you get someone like me in with your lawyers – there’s usually a way to figure out a way to take moral responsibility, which is what being forgiven calls for, without taking on liability that your attorneys don’t want you to take on,” Sandman told The Weekend Australian in an interview.

Working with AWB company secretary Richard Fuller in a series of long telephone calls last December, Sandman walked AWB into his world of “outrage management.”

“The basic thing I say to clients again and again and again about apologising is, look, usually when people are mad at you two things are true; one of the things that is usually true is that some of what they are mad at you for, you didn’t do and they’re wrong,” he says. “The other thing that is usually true is some of what they are mad at you for has a real relationship with something you did do.

“What you need to do is figure out what you did do, so you can say you’re sorry for that and promise not to do it again.”

The AWB draft letter that emerged in December, under former chief executive Andrew Lindberg’s name, does just that.

But there’s no admission that AWB was knowingly paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime.

That the letter has been seized on this week as some kind of admission of AWB’s guilt is sure to worry Sandman and his franchise. To him it was nothing of the sort – it was cleverly crafted to fit Sandman’s world, where there is an admission of moral responsibility, not an admission of guilt.

And who knows – if AWB had used the letter, it might have helped to quell the outrage, for a while at least. But the wheat marketers never went ahead with the strategy.

Copyright © 2006 by The Australian

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