There's a point in most crises when the subject at the center finally "gets" it. The individual or organization comes to terms with the inevitability of the challenges they face; the seriousness of the litigation, the fact that the investigation isn't going to go away. And, they come to terms with the reality of public opinion -- they realize finally that denying, explaining and protesting the unfairness of it all is getting them exactly nowhere.
Bitter thoughts about what a jerk the plaintiff's attorney is, or what an opportunist the investigating commissioner is, are left behind. There's a sense that fair or unfair, this is the situation we're in and it must be handled. And, whether fair or unfair, public opinion has settled on a position; the roles have been cast and we have to work with the one we've been assigned.
This is when the real progress begins. Messages about conspiracies are tossed in the trash and new ones, about avoiding a recurrence or getting to the bottom of things, are written. Apologies -- once half-hearted and qualified almost to death -- now start to sound sincere and worthy of attention.
In the best of cases, this phase plays out to the end. The company or organization re-brands itself as genuinely committed to change. No one is more determined to achieve greater food safety, or product reliability, or broker ethics, or customer respect than this recently chastened entity.
In other cases, though, something goes wrong shortly after that contrition phase begins. Another lawsuit gets filed, a detractor is featured in media interviews or a new politician enters the fray. And the supposedly chastened organization fires back, angry and defensive. All that progress is washed away in an instant. To the public, their initial perception is reinforced and there is a vow that the next show of contrition will be viewed with even more skepticism.
The Vatican, determined to make every PR mistake in the book and even a few previously unpublished ones, provided a stark example of this in the past week. Just a couple of weeks after Pope Benedict XVI's apologies were stripped of rancor and a misplaced sense of victimhood, the Vatican blasted back at Belgian police and one of its own bishops. In doing so, the Holy See swept away whatever progress it had made with the summertime shift to contrition. To critics, it revealed the insincerity of the apologies and revealed a church still more intent on protecting its leaders than on uncovering the truth.
Once you start down the apology highway, you have to stay on it. You cannot get off when it suits you and re-engage in blasting your critics/investigators/detractors. If you do, you'll find the path to re-entry is firmly and lastingly blocked.