Apologies In The Media
Given the amount of mea culpas we are all witnessing these days
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
We found his questions fascinating and thought we would share them (and
our answers) with you.
Q. 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.
A. 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
addictionthey'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-----" 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' guidelinese.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
Some apologies work when these ingredients are present, while others fail
despite the fact that these guidelines were followed.
Consider the recent celebrity apologies you mentioned in your question (which
we cover in a recent article) 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 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 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.
Q. What, in your opinion is the biggest mistake people make in
A. 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 grovelingwe 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' statementssee 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.
Q. Is it wise to use the passive voice politicians love"mistakes were
made"Gonzales, Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, etc.
A. 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 thisthere 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.
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.
Q. 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?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. For the answer to these questions we
directed him to read some brief commentaries we produced on these very
They include our review of 10 not-so-successful business apologies
in an article for Network World, the marketing power
of apologizing in our commentary entitled Air Apology, and
finally, our review of the 'Perfect'
Return to Famous Apologies.