How to Turn a Mistake to Your Advantage

Posted on Feb 17, 2020

Let’s face it: we all make mistakes. From an ill-timed tweet to placeholder copy that somehow made it to publication, it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll blunder. The trick is to handle the mistake with grace and—in some cases—a bit of humour. Read on for tips on how to turn that face-palm into a high five!

Be honest

The worst thing you can do when you make a mistake is lie about it. Not only is it unethical, but the truth almost always surfaces, and you’ll be left looking both incompetent and dishonest. You don’t have to share everything that led up to the mistake, but owning up to an error is the first step to fixing it. If you’re in a leadership role, take responsibility regardless of who on your staff is responsible. Demonstrating accountability is powerful and sends a message to both your team and your clients that


If your mistake impacts customers or clients, your second step after taking responsibility should be listening to their concerns carefully before jumping in with explanations or solutions. You might be unaware of how an oversight on your part had a significant impact on a customer—and demonstrating that you actually care goes a long way. Expect that they may be angry or irrational and resist the urge to interrupt or dismiss their feedback. Sometimes your biggest critic or angriest customer, when handled carefully, can be turned into a champion for your brand.

Use humour… when appropriate

If your mistake isn’t too serious, making a joke or putting a humorous spin on the incident can help move past it. A recent example from Twitter demonstrates this (and the power of social media). When a local bakery put the wrong Maple Leaf logo on a hockey-loving child’s birthday cake, the Canadian meat producer stepped in for the win. To be sure, the mistake was not actually theirs, but they saw an opportunity to turn an error into a humorous win for their brand. Another classic example is how Kentucky Fried Chicken put a cheeky spin on a chicken shortage a couple of years ago in the UK. Not only did it defuse a potentially damaging situation, the resulting media coverage turned the day into a free media blitz!

Find creative solutions

If a mistake has compromised safety or impacted sales, of course you’ll need to take steps to remedy it. Rather than pointing fingers, however, try taking a step back. Are there things you can do differently to ensure this doesn’t happen again? Safeguards you can put in place? One approach, often found in health care, is modeling a just culture. This means rather than pointing fingers after a mistake, the organization works collaboratively to examine the system and what can be changed to prevent future mistakes.

Let’s say you’re dealing with a glaring typo that hid from all four rounds of reviews only to manifest on the front page of your new corporate brochure… after you printed a thousand copies. Once you’ve read the same copy over and over, you’re almost guaranteed to slide past those types of mistakes. A possible solution? Consider reserving one person on your team for the ‘final review’—or maybe have someone from a different department read it. Seeing something for the first time, they’re much more likely to catch an eye poker.

(Of course the classic PR typo – “pubic relations” – has caught out more than one pro. Spell check doesn’t flag that one 😉)

In conclusion

We’re all fallible. Mistakes are going to happen. But don’t immediate jump to crisis mode—take a minute to reflect. You’d be surprised how quickly you can defuse a potential crisis and change the tune with a thoughtful response, and maybe a smile.

Not sure of your first step after making an error? Want to make sure your communications are error-proof? We’re here to help. We’ve helped clients big and small with communications and public relations difficulties. We pride ourselves on being able to offer innovative and strategic solutions to fix your problem fast.

Have a problem you need fixed now? Book a spot in my calendar and let’s talk through some options.

At PR Associates, there is no learning curve because health and science communication is all we do. As experts and seamless extensions of your team, we use science storytelling to clarify complexity, capture imaginations, shift mindsets, and stimulate investment interest.

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