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How not to apologize for offensive behaviour

November 29, 2019
By Gregory Strong

TORONTO (CP) – As far as apologies go, the offering from Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters in the wake of allegations he used a racial slur 10 years ago was not exactly the new normal.

Critics were quick to point out the apology was only made to his team and general manager, and that it took a full two days before a statement was issued. Wojtek Dabrowski, the managing partner of Toronto-based crisis communications firm Provident Communications Inc., called the apology “woefully inadequate.”

“All he’s done is sort of dance on the head of a pin to try to explain it all away,” he said. “And he’s dug himself a deeper hole.”

Whether in sports, politics, or other arenas, a proper apology needs to hit the right notes to be taken at full value. Ownership, honesty and directness are paramount.


“I think the whole point is you have to have that compass of what is the right thing?” said Bob Stellick, who spent 15 years on the Maple Leafs communications staff and is now president and CEO of Toronto-based Stellick Marketing Communications. “It’s a difficult compass because it’s not always the best in the short-term for your organization, but in the long-term it will serve you and your (team) in much better stead.”

The Peters story has been developing since Monday night, when former NHL player Akim Aliu tweeted that he had racism directed his way by a former coach in 2009-10 while with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.

Born in Nigeria and raised in Ukraine and Canada, Aliu never referred to Peters by name, but used Calgary’s airport code “YYC” when writing about a coach who allegedly “dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music.”

Flames GM Brad Treliving addressed the media on Monday night after he was made aware of the tweet, but Peters was not made available and didn’t coach the team’s last game. The NHL is also investigating.

Hockey analysts have opined that both sides have to be careful with their wording given that lawyers are likely involved and if Peters were to be fired, the financial payout could be significantly affected by the reason for termination. Peters is signed through the 2020-21 campaign and earns a reported US$2 million per season.

“The Flames are moving a hand grenade around,” said Stellick. “I think they’re doing the best job they can. I know they’ve apologized for the speed of their process and they’re saying it’s due to their being thorough.

“I think there is an issue with the coach, rather than using a communications person, perhaps lawyering up on his sort-of apology.”

In his statement, Peters said he used “offensive language … in a professional setting a decade ago.” He called it an “isolated and immediately regrettable incident.” The letter did not mention Aliu.

“When your apology comes from a legal standpoint rather than a from-the-heart or a communications standpoint, you end up being advised to limit your personal liability,” Stellick said. “You end up often sort of doing a half-baked situation.”

Dabrowski said the apology had “all kinds of caveats” and “sorry not sorry” aspects to it.

“The final act of this story cannot be this woefully inadequate apology of his,” he said. “It needs to get much more germane and genuine. It needs to happen live and not behind a statement. And he needs to apologize to the individual that he’s wronged.”

Dabrowski said a proper apology would include a brief overview of what happened – without omitting information – and saying sorry directly to the individual or group and linking it to the behaviour.

“The apology is your opportunity to in one go, get all of that out in public, own it and make a commitment to do better in the future and try to move on,” he said.

The word ‘if’ should be avoided as a general rule, Dabrowski added, and there should not be attempts to rationalize or minimize what actually happened. He would also advise that a person spell out the concrete steps they’ll be taking to be better in the future.

“It’s great that he’s apologized to the GM,” he said. “But he should apologize to the player and he should do so publicly and he should do so now.”

Peters, who has coached at various levels for over 20 years, is in his second season as Calgary’s head coach. The Flames will next play on Saturday against the visiting Ottawa Senators.

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