Marilyn Davenport, an elected Orange County Republican official, sent an email containing a racist photo to a few of her friends last week. The photo showed President Obama as a baby ape, playing to the most vulgar stereotypes about African-Americans.
After being confronted by the media about the photo, Ms. Davenport sent a defiant email to her fellow Orange County, California Republican leaders on Saturday
. That email reads, in part:
“I will NOT resign my central committee position over this matter that the average person knows and agrees is much to do about nothing. Again, for those select few who might be truly offended by viewing a copy of an email I sent to a select list of friends and acquaintances, unlike the liberal left when they do the same, I offer my sincere apologies to you—the email was not meant for you.”
As you might imagine, that response didn’t sit well with many people—including some of her fellow Republican officials. So, on Monday
, she tried again, this time, with a much more humble tone:
“To my fellow Americans and to everyone else who has seen this email I forwarded and was offended by my action, I humbly apologize and ask for your forgiveness of my unwise behavior. I say unwise because at the time I received and forwarded the email, I didn’t stop to think about the historic implications and other examples of how this could be offensive. I would never do anything to intentionally harm or berate others regardless of ethnicity. Everyone who knows me knows that to be true."
In reading this interview
with Ms. Davenport, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, as she says, she did something stupid, reflected about it, realized what she did was wrong, and feels genuine remorse.
I do appreciate that she came to the right conclusion within a few days instead of continuing to defend her bad behavior—plenty of public officials dig their heels in and never admit culpability in any form.
Unfortunately, Ms. Davenport’s second, more humble apology was badly undercut by her first, defiant apology. Many readers will conclude that she said what she actually meant in her first statement, and said what she thought she should in her second.
One of the most difficult things for people in crisis is to go straight for the second apology. Their instinct is to go for the first apology, which allows them to defend their motives, actions, and honor. But that rarely works.
Imagine if Ms. Davenport had gone straight to the second apology instead of releasing the first one. Sure, people would have still been upset. But the story would have had fewer days of shelf life, and more people would have believed her statement was sincere.
Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, where a version of this story first appeared. His firm, Phillips Media Relations, specializes in media and presentation training.