Ifan Morgan Jones
Every year I teach first-year university students a course on the basics of public relations, and every year I give them one key piece of advice:
If you make a mistake, apologise completely and unreservedly.
Not a ‘I’m sorry if people were offended’ apology, which shifts the blame on those who took umbrage, but a proper ‘sorry for what I did’.
At first glance, this seems like a very counterintuitive solution. It is effectively admitting to guilt, and any chance of wriggling out of the situation with your reputation fully intact will be gone.
However, in reality, there’s almost no reputation damage that can’t be avoided by apologising for it.
Everyone makes mistakes and everyone realises we all make mistakes. And people will forgive almost anything if the person responsible holds their hands up and admits to it.
In truth, what does the most reputational damage in almost every case is refusing to apologise.
The bad press is then dragged on for days or weeks as the apology continues to be demanded and rebuffed, where a quick ‘I’m sorry’ would have stopped the whole thing in its tracks.
I’m a massive fan of Meic Stevens. I’ve attended I don’t know how many gigs of his over two decades, and looking at the playlist on my computer I can see that 4-5 of my top 30 tracks are his.
Of course, given the language barrier, many in Wales may have no idea who he is or why he’s attracting so much attention.
He is not to be confused with Meic Stephens who painted the Tryweryn mural (and passed away last year). Meic Stevens is effectively the Welsh music scene’s Bob Dylan, as close to a living legend as has ever graced the Welsh music scene.
He is a hero to many, which made it all the more disappointing when he made comments at the Gwyl Arall festival in Caernarfon over the weekend about Muslims on his granddaughter’s school bus in Cardiff.
There is no recording of the exact words subsequently used so it would be unfair of me to quote them, but some of the audience walked out and his comments were described as racist on social media by people who were in attendance.
The singer has responded by denying that he is racist. That may very well be the case, but it is perfectly possible to make racist comments with no racist intent.
We are all guilty of saying things that reinforce prejudice or discrimination, often unthinkingly, and only realising that we have done so after opening our mouths or having it pointed out by someone else.
No one is accusing Meic Stevens of going out deliberately to stoke racial discrimination or islamophobia.
That is why, in cases such as these, an apology would suffice and no long-term reputational damage would be done. It would be an opportunity for us all to reflect on our own prejudices and collectively agree that there is no place for such comments in our society.
Unfortunately, Meic Stevens’ actual response was to rather petulantly claim that he was thinking of giving up singing in Welsh – i.e. that he would punish those at the gig for pointing out that his comments were not acceptable.
I dearly hope that this was just a knee-jerk response by a man shocked at finding himself accused of racist comments, and that with a little more time to reconsider he will choose to apologise.
The other suggestion, by Meic Stevens and others, was that because he had campaigned against racism in the past and lived in the multi-ethnic Cardiff Bay and travelled abroad that he could not be racist.
Again, no one is accusing Meic Stevens of being racist, but rather of saying something racist.
And having campaigned against racism in the past does not guarantee that any utterance that subsequently comes from your mouth cannot be racist.
There has already been pressure on this weekend’s Sesiwn Fawr festival in Dolgellau, and the Green Man festival, to cancel Meic Stevens’ gigs.
I hope it doesn’t come to that, when all would be forgiven with a quick apology and lessons learnt.
No one wants to see an ignominious and unnecessary end to the musical career of one of Wales’ most talented and best-loved singers.