To err is human – except in business

Looking through the list of 101 dumbest moments in business on CNN Money – there is definitely a lot that public relations practitioners can learn.  But which of us has never made a mistake?  A quick look through famous quotations shows us, most great minds feel to err is a good thing:

  • “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” – George Bernard Shaw
  • “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” – Danish physicist, Niels Bohr
  • Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892, Act III
  • “Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.” – Confucius 

Of course companies should not deliberately make errors – and some particularly dumb examples could easily be avoided.  But perhaps it is time to debunk the myth of rational management and recognise that things will go pear-shaped sometimes.  Only that way can businesses be allowed to try new things and learn from their mistakes.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

4 thoughts on “To err is human – except in business”

  1. A friend said to me that PR is only really recognised when things go wrong. Does anybody agree with this? I’m not sure that I do. Does this mean then that in good times when everything is going well, PR should not be seen or heard?

    Does this not just exacerbate the confusion in the public mind about what it is we actually do?

  2. I always love Oscar Wilde’s quotes, they are spot on. I find that people do accept mistakes if they are owned up to, it’s deception which is unacceptable.

  3. Jill – I suppose PR is a little like a real friend, you only appreciate their value when you’ve got a crisis. I’ve found this to be true in organisations, where the skills of PR people become recognised most after they’ve handled bad news.

    I remember being at the Frankfurt Motor Show once and the IT guy in the back room told me that the company resented paying for him to be there because he wasn’t doing anything. As he said, that was the point – he’d done his job, so nothing went wrong but if it did, then all eyes would be on him to fix it. I always say good PRs are like swans and you shouldn’t see the legs paddling like made below the water.

    I think this does make it hard for the public to appreciate the true depths of good PR. That’s why we all need to challenge the poor practitioners and show up the problems with their “bad habits”.

  4. Ellee – I agree that, for a Victorian, Oscar Wilde had a modern touch making his comments relevant today. Also if you make a mistake it is much better to own up. Preferably, you don’t make stupid mistakes, so then everyone can genuinely empathise – but I don’t think you should keep making the same mistakes and expecting understanding.

    I’ve seen research showing that fixing a problem increases feelings of customer satisfaction compared to when nothing ever goes wrong – so there is a lot of power in saying sorry and making amends.

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