When you've said or written something that is inaccurate, untrue or hurtful to an individual or a group, you may need to retract your original statement. Whether you do it in writing, in person or via the media, retracting a statement is an important first step to mend relationships and exercise damage control. While it's not always easy to admit you've made a mistake, you'll gain respect and admiration by setting things straight in an honest and upfront way.
Decide on the form your retraction should take. If you've hurt a friend or an acquaintance, a personal conversation is usually sufficient. If you were acting on behalf of a company or an organisation, a memo or letter is more appropriate. If you're in the public eye, a news conference or taped statement may be necessary. Former President Bill Clinton, for example, initially denied a sexual relationship with White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, however, later he made a public apology and retraction of his original statement on national television.
Respond quickly to a request for a retraction. When you decide that a retraction is the appropriate step, respond to the request with your intention to make the retraction with a written or spoken copy of it. Taking these steps may help you avoid legal action from an injured party.
Prepare your retraction in writing. Even if you plan to retract your statement orally, having notes, or an actual written statement, can help prepare you for the actual retraction. Spend time reflecting on why you were incorrect or misleading in your previous comments. Speak slowly and clearly and look your audience in the eye when you make an oral retraction.
Admit that you were wrong. State clearly how and why you were wrong. You may have simply made a mistake or you may have been deliberately untruthful. Either way, declare what your untrue statement was and why you made it. When former talk show host, Don Imus, made racial statements about members of the Rutgers University woman's basketball team, a public outcry led to his public retraction of the statements. In this instance, CBS Radio chose to cancel Mr. Imus' show, "Imus in the Morning."
Make a corrective statement. What was the correct information that should have been conveyed? What is the truth about the situation that requires the retraction? Use this opportunity to set the correct information on the record. The corrective statement is an important aspect to avoid liability. If your statement was libellous or slanderous, the victim of the statement may bring a defamation lawsuit against you or your organisation. Setting the record straight is the first step in protecting yourself from legal action.
Apologise for your actions. Whether you deliberately misled someone or whether you made an honest mistake, offer an expression of sincere regret for your behaviour. Promise to be honest or exercise extreme care in the future to avoid finding yourself in the same position. Actor Mel Gibson, made a public apology for his anti-Semitic statements made when he was arrested for speeding, and subsequently drunken-driving.
Promise to do better in the future. While you cannot change your previous actions, you can certainly behave differently in the future. Whether you need to practice honesty, due diligence or simply be more sensitive, work hard to change your ways and avoid a repeat of your current circumstance.
- University of Wollongong: Defamation Law and Free Speech
- Expert Law: Defamation, Libel and Slander Law
- Zpub.com: Bill Clinton's August 17 speech to the American public re: Monica Lewinsky
- Fox News: Talk-Radio Host Don Imus Apologizes for On-Air Racial Slurs
- Citizen Media Law Project: Retraction Law in Massachusetts
- Speak from the heart and set the record straight. People are more likely to accept a sincerely offered retraction.
- Be aware that not everyone will appreciate your overtures. Take comfort in the fact that you have corrected any misinformation no matter what reaction you receive.
- Hire an attorney when you need to retract a statement made to the police. A false police statement is a serious matter that can result in criminal charges.