We all make mistakes. Some are more public than others. One of the most cringe-worthy flubs of recent television history occurred Sunday on stage at the Miss Universe 2015 pageant.
Comedian and Family Feud host Steve Harvey wrongly crowned Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutierrez-Arévalo, the winner. Moments later a somber Harvey reappeared on stage to correct the error, announcing that Miss Colombia was actually the runner-up. Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo-Wurztbach, was the actual winner.
In crisis communication, we recommend several strategies to deal with an honest, but regrettable mistake. Steve Harvey -- a seasoned performer -- did some things well and could have done other things better.
What he did right.
Harvey corrected the mistake immediately. Within moments of making the wrong announcement, Harvey slowly took to the stage and said, “I have to apologize. The first runner-up is Colombia.” A camera shot of both women showed them stunned, speechless. “Miss Universe 2015 is Philippines,” Harvey added.
2. Harvey took ownership of the mistake. “Let me just take control of this,” Harvey said. “This is exactly what’s on the card. I take responsibility for this. It was my mistake. It was on the card. Horrible mistake. I can show it to you right here. The first runner-up is Colombia. It was my mistake. Please don’t hold it against the ladies.”
All too often when leaders make mistakes there’s a lot of finger-pointing. Few people want to 'fess up and take ownership of a mistake quickly. Harvey made a major gaffe, but he didn’t lay blame on the organizer, the teleprompter operator or anyone else. He owned it. A less seasoned performer might have crumbled under the pressure. Harvey handled it fairly well.
What he did wrong.
1. Harvey could have been more effective at turning the attention back to the finalists. Harvey’s attempt fell flat when he said, “We feel so badly, but it’s still a great night.” And with that, he left the stage. The first rule in an apology is never to use the word "but" because it negates the positive sentiments that follow it. Harvey should have said something such as this after his apology:
"All of the talented women tonight were amazing and it’s an honor to be a part of it. We are proud of Miss Colombia as the first runner-up and I know she has done an incredible job representing her country. And now please join me in celebrating Miss Philippines, your 2015 Miss Universe.”
2. Harvey should also have spent a little more time drafting his response for social media. He inadvertently aggregated the mistake by making another one. Harvey misspelled the countries of both winners. It’s speed that got Harvey into trouble with his post as well as his announcement on stage. He announced the winner too quickly before processing what was actually on the card.
The one person in the entire fiasco who handled it with the most class -- and might emerge from this with huge endorsement potential -- is the person who had the shortest reign in Miss Universe history: Miss Colombia Gutierrez-Arévalo.
“Everything happens for a reason so I’m happy. I’m happy for all that I did. Thank you for voting for me,” the poised and gracious 21-year-old said in a video posted to the Miss Universe Twitter feed.
It’s important for all communicators to remember that you are human and mistakes will happen. The key is to take immediate ownership and to be authentic in your apology. Your audience will respect you for it.