Apologies seem to be a dime-a-dozen lately. Kanye, Serena, LaGarrette, Coach Kelly, LaGarrette again, Rep. Joe “You Lie!” Wilson (R-S. Carolina), Letterman…In fact, do a Google News search for “apologize” and get more than 13,000 results just from the last week.
We all make mistakes, bad decisions and yes, sometimes we even simply change our minds. Celebrities, athletes, politicians and business leaders are no different. But when it happens to people in the public eye, the apology can be a very important part of the public relations and communications effort required to move forward.
I do not talk about apologies as PR to minimize their importance and suggest that apologies are in any way “spin” or crafted in a way to only appear sincere. In fact, just the opposite. It’s hard to apologize and do so in a way that communicates your sincerity and intent. PR can help the individual (or organization) get their words and actions in line – and sometimes that means helping said individual or organization change their actions.
But what makes a good apology? In crisis communications, the mantra is to “tell it first, tell it fast, tell them what you’re going to do about it.” Because apologies are often given in the aftermath of a crisis, this advice holds true.
A Web site called The Perfect Apology gives a formula for crafting, well, the perfect apology. I think the formula works really well.
An effective apology should:
- Include a specific reference to the situation you’re apologizing for. This may seem simple, but situations can get conflated and issues confused.
- Acknowledge the hurt or damage done.
- Take responsibility and recognize your role in the situation.
- State your regret. Tell your audience how you feel about what’s happened.
- Include what you’re going to do about it. What are your next steps to make sure this situation won’t occur again?
Kanye got many of these points right with his apology on Leno and (to me) seemed very sincere.
“I’m just ashamed that [I] caused someone else’s hurt…And I don’t try to justify it because I was just in the wrong…Period. But I need to, after this, take some time off and just analyze how I’m going to make it through the rest of this life, how I’m going to improve.”
Serena’s specific acknowledgment of her role model status was an important (and effective) part of her eventual apology:
I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it’s not the way to act — win or lose, good call or bad call in any sport, in any manner. I like to lead by example. We all learn from experiences both good and bad, I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.”
For an apology to stick, you must follow-through. When actions contradict what words – any goodwill you have will evaporate and can compound the damage done.
George Schroeder had a terrific opinion piece in the Register-Guard about Chip Kelly’s decision to (maybe) allow LaGarrette Blount play again this season. In it he talks about the apparent conflict between Kelly’s words and actions. Actions, my friends, always speak louder than words. An excerpt (emphasis in bold is mine):
Since that night in Boise, [Kelly]’s been praised for his decision on Blount, for refunding expenses to a disgruntled fan, for sticking with a faltering quarterback, and also for leading a resurgence on the field.
This unravels much of that.
Never mind what Kelly says, people don’t see a kid who needs a goal. They see a football coach who wants a star tailback in the lineup. They think Nebraska, and Lawrence Phillips, no matter how strained the comparison.
Suspicious minds will figure Kelly had at least an inkling — even as he said there was no way Blount would play again for Oregon — that Blount would play again for Oregon.
Discussing with students some of the events of the summer, it was amazing how many examples that came up involved an apology… and even more telling that when I asked if the apologies seemed sincere, almost universally, the answer was no (or more accurately, the answer was groans of “yeah, right.”).
What do you think? What makes an apology “sincere”? Who has done a good job of apologizing recently?