The Don Imus Apology

Imussed Up: Anatomy of a Failed Apology

Of all the celebrity mistakes and apologies that might provide some useful insights into the Don Imus collapse, the closest parallel is the Michael Richards' (Kramer) case&mdas;his repeated use of the 'n' word in a screaming match with audience members during a very bad comedy routine produced a similar backlash.

Unlike Imus, who will no doubt bounce back on satellite radio, Richards' career did not survive despite repeated efforts to apologize to the African American community through two of its leaders—Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Successful apologies often depend on the recipient—some mistakes deserve a little more time and effort to correct, and some recipients demand a little more attention and sympathy.

Don Imus kicked off his apology tour by appearing on Al Sharpton's radio program (a move considered by many to be a huge mistake that compounded the problem). Like Richards, the Imus apology strategy failed to turn the tied, because apologies work best when delivered to recipients who are prepared to forgive. In both cases, however, some members of the aggrieved community weren't ready to let things go and used the mistake to exploit political agendas.

Ironically, the one group directly affected and offended by the Imus insult, the Rutgers University Women's Basketball team, did accept Imus' apology.

When the perfect apology guidelines are followed personal apologies almost always succeed, because you're dealing with one person or a small group.

Unfortunately for Imus the fact he was forgiven by the Basketball team become a secondary issue, it was essentially beside the point—the momentum caused by the insult affected far too many other people on a personal level. This was an almost impossible mistake to correct completely.

The statement by NBC's Hal Rocker calling for standards to be maintained at MSNBC, Gwen Ifill's (a highly respected African American anchor at PBS) New York Times article commenting on previous racial slurs by Imus directed at her, and the press conference by the Rutgers Basketball team sealed his fate. There was no coming back.

Fortunately, most errors for which our readers will have to apologize will never come close to Don Imus' reprehensible insult.

See more of our commentaries on public apologies or visit our research section for business case studies.