Apologies In The Media

Given the amount of apologies delivered by various people in the public eye, we weren't surprised when a reporter from The Sacramento Bee approached us. He was writing an article on why 'Apologies Sure Ain't What They Used To Be' and asked us to help him out by answering a few questions.

We found his questions fascinating and thought we would share them (and our answers) with you.

Regarding the recent celebrity trend of apologizing and then going directly into some form of rehab: Is that merely a cynical ploy to deflect blame or a heartfelt act? Do you think the public can see through the quasi-apologies of Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, Mark Foley, etc.

Judging by how long it takes many of these celebrities to recover while in rehab I think most people are bright enough (and cynical enough) to understand that these press releases are not really about recovering from an addiction—they're designed to help the celebrity recover from the disastrous public relations hit he/she took as a result of the mistake, addiction, statement, etc.

Although obvious, the automatic rehab strategy actually works in most cases to control, distract or redirect the negative press, because the media rarely follows the story beyond the rehab entry stage and the relative press coverage (post-rehab) is non-existent or minimal at best.

But occasionally the entry into rehab does more to confuse rather than reassure the celebrity's fans, as when Isaiah Washington (star of Grey's Anatomy) apologized for outing his co-actor T.R. Knight by using the 'f----t' word, and then entered counselling/rehab. It was never really made clear how this solution was at all relevant to this particular infraction and what the rehab program would entail (or fix).

With respect to your question about Richards, Gibson and Foley, we at PA repeatedly stress how important it is to include all of the ingredients of a perfect apology if you're serious about increasing the probability of having your apology accepted. But we also point out that the probability of success or failure is not exclusively a function of following these 'perfect apology' guidelines—e.g., a description of the error; acknowledgment of the offense; acceptance of responsibility; a willingness to own the mistake; an explanation; regret, humility and remorse; a request to be forgiven; a credible effort to prevent the error from happening again; and some form of compensation.

Some apologies work when these ingredients are present, while others fail despite the fact that these guidelines were followed.

Consider the celebrity apologies you mentioned in your question —Michael Richards apologized for using the 'n' word; Mel Gibson pleaded insanity (and alcoholism) for using the 'j' word; and Ted Haggard (President of the National Association of Evangelicals) and Mark Foley (prominent Republican congressman) both apologized for being addicted to the 's' word.

So how did they do? Mel Gibson seems to have mended a sufficient number of fences with the Jewish community after his initial incident, by following the same strategy. Mel's apology was so successful he admits to being 'overwhelmed by the understanding.' But the other mistakes and apologies were far less successful. Michael Richards' career is not likely to survive despite repeated efforts to apologize by attaching himself to prominent members of the African American community, arranging press conferences with Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton, and promising to spend the rest of his life fixing the mistake.

The point here is that perfect apologies work best when delivered to recipients who are prepared to forgive. The content of the apology is occasionally not sufficient, especially when the aggrieved person/community isn't ready to let things go and sees an opportunity to push (exploit) the hurt a little further (for perfectly good reasons)—as with the African American community's response to Richards' apology.

What, in your opinion is the biggest mistake people make in apologizing publicly?

Most public apologies almost never completely succeed, for a very simple reason: you can't please all of the people all of the time, no matter how meticulously and sincerely you follow the ingredients of a perfect apology. Apologies are often accepted or rejected for political reasons and have almost nothing to do with the apology itself. On the other hand, personal mea culpas are almost always successful when the guidelines are followed, because you're dealing essentially with one person.

Keep in mind that very few apologies ever meet the 'perfection' standard, and some that are less-than-perfect work out just fine. Also, there's a fine line between a perfect apology and groveling—we think Jetblue's 'recent' public apology to customers is a great example of a CEO getting very close to the perfection mark without going over the line. We raise the Jetblue apology because it does give you an idea of the benchmarks we use to identify a strong, credible, effective apology that meets most of the ingredients we emphasize throughout PA.com.

Of course the most common mistake in most situations is the absence of one or more of the key ingredients. And the two that are usually avoided are 'ownership/responsibility' (which directly relates to the use of passive voice 'mistakes were made' statements—see next question below) and 'compensation/restitution.' Both of these common omissions are usually the product of lawyers and public relations firms controlling spin to avoid further losses and or litigation, especially in a business setting.

Now, it's certainly true that many apologies are crafted by lawyers, but they rarely have to be. Few business errors, for example, result in any real harm to clients or produced any measurable costs that could serve as the basis for a credible (or actionable) legal case. Apologies crafted by lawyers may deter some of the more determined (and misguided) customers from filing for damages, but the unintended consequence of issuing these very weak, legally scripted statements is that they often alienate (and lose) many more customers than they deter.

Is it wise to use the passive voice politicians love—'mistakes were made'—Gonzales, Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, etc.

Part of this question has already been answered by our response to your last question but there is one additional point we'd like to make on this—there is nothing wrong with using the passive voice when crafting an apology, as long as the apology goes on to follow the PA guidelines and includes all of the ingredients we outline on the site.

The most relevant ingredient to consider in the context of an apology that uses the passive voice (mistakes "were" made) is to explain how the problem/mistake/error/insult/etc. will not happen again, followed by a list of clear and meaningful steps that are being taken to correct the problem.

Is it always best advice to come clean and bear your soul? Or is it best to keep apologies as brief and simple as possible?

The answer depends almost entirely on the mistake and the recipient. Some mistakes deserve a little more time and effort, and some recipients demand a little more attention and sympathy. A good part of what makes a perfect apology "perfect" is that it's guided by intangibles that are very specific to each and every case.

With respect to the question of coming clean and bearing your soul, we do caution that there are indeed some cases that require additional care/caution before issuing a detailed apology, and these are usually cases in which all of the information is not yet in.

For example, it would probably not be very wise for the CEO of Menu Foods, Paul Henderson, to have a press conference hours after the poisoning deaths of over a dozen dogs and cats to apologies to grieving pet owners for company failures. A brief but general "I am so very sorry for the unimaginable loss..." is entirely appropriate. But until scientists have a chance to pinpoint the cause (and blame), perhaps a little time and a few information-related (as distinct from apology-related) press conferences are sufficient.

When it comes to corporations apologizing, what are examples of good and bad ones? A lot of people say JetBLue is an example of a good apology. Do you agree and, if so, why?

For the answer to these questions we directed him to read some brief commentaries we produced on these very questions.

They include our review of 10 not-so-successful business apologies in an article for Network World, our commentary on the marketing power of apologizing and finally our review of the 'Perfect' JetBlue Apology.