Waffling Language, Categorical Awakening and Qualified Apology Make NY Governor’s Sexual Harassment Mea Culpa Less Than Perfect
3/2/21 – – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is fighting for his political life on several fronts. He’s accused of making deadly policy decisions in the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, misreporting COVID-19 death toll numbers in the state’s nursing homes, and sexually harassing young women (three have come forward so far). Aggressively denying the pandemic-related charges for the last several weeks, Cuomo released a more conciliatory statement on Sunday evening addressing the escalating sexual harassment accusations.
What can crisis counselors learn from the governor’s response? Is his “apology” likely to calm the waters? Or will his explanation heighten calls for his resignation?
Insisting that he “never intended to offend anyone or cause any harm,” Cuomo characterizes his behavior as “playful,” explaining that, “I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way.”
He then assures readers that he’s seen the error of his ways — sort of:
I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.
And finally, he offers this qualified apology:
To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.
Here are three reasons I believe this reluctant mea culpa is likely to make things even worse for the embattled governor:
First of all, he opens with a tone-deaf attempt to equate sexual harassment, if it is unintended, with teasing and playfulness. In today’s “Me Too” world, he fails to show any understanding of or empathy for women who have suffered the personal and professional consequences of such destructive behavior. You may have been having fun, Governor Cuomo, but these women were not.
He them commits the most common error seen in corporate apology statements: what I call a “categorical awakening.” He’s seen the light. But, rather than saying, “I now understand that my interactions were insensitive . . .” he waffles by saying, “I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive . . .” May have been insensitive? So, you’re still not sure? How many more women have to share their harrowing experiences with The New York Times before you’re convinced?
The statement loses all credibility when Cuomo makes clear that he’s “truly sorry” only to “the extent anyone felt that way.” Qualifying the apology is another mistake made by corporate leaders finding themselves in similar predicaments. It’s easy to blame such waffling wordsmithing on over-cautious attorneys, but the buck stops with the executive signing the statement. If you’re “truly sorry,” just say that. Period. When multiple people have come forward with complaints, you can’t say, “If I made anyone uncomfortable, I’m sorry.” You know you made people uncomfortable, so say so.
To be fair to Governor Cuomo, his statement concludes with his endorsement of an independent investigation of his behavior and an admonition to those who would intimidate his accusers. We can give him props for those helpful sentiments.
Going to school on other people’s crises is a great way to prevent and prepare for your own reputational challenges. I believe Governor’s Cuomo’s statement is well worth studying — more for its shortcomings than sincerity.