Newsletter PR: The Good, Bad and Ugly

Have Apologies Become Just Sorry Excuses?

by Wesley Hyatt on 08/04/2010

Toyota. BP. NBC’s treatment of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. ESPN’s special on LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers. Participants in these recent debacles said they were sorry afterward. But were they really?

To me, the most depressing PR trend has been no sincere remorse among officials and celebrities when they say something inappropriate or behave poorly. Too often we hear conditional answers (“I am sorry if anybody was upset with what I did”) or a “non-apology” apology (“They are bringing that up because they don’t want to talk about the real issue, which is …” and then the official or celebrity goes off-topic).

If this approach continues, it will make public apologies meaningless. The statements will come off as “I got away with it until now. You have found out, and I will tell you I am sorry to save face and/or make you feel better, but I do not regret doing it anyway.”

This is cynicism at its worst, and it must stop now. Here are my three tips to address it:

1)     Think before you speak or act.

This lesson most of us learned back in school, and it rings truer every day. The consequences of bad behavior in public can be permanently damaging. As a TV historian, I can give you the classic example of Arthur Godfrey, who went from being the top moneymaker at CBS to pariah when he unceremoniously fired Julius LaRosa on the air in 1953. That was bad enough, but Godfrey later allowed that if he had not explained his move by claiming that LaRosa “lacked humility” – when most viewers felt it was the other way around – Godfrey might have fared better.

2)     Say what you mean and mean what you say.

If you go ahead and do something wrong, follow it with a definitive and heartfelt explanation. You do not have to break down and cry, of course, but you should fully address all charges about your questionable actions or statements, preferably as quickly as possible. People may not agree with what you did, but if they take into account the reasons why you did  it and understand your circumstances, most will allow you the benefit of the doubt.

3)     Take your lumps honestly.

When Southwest Airlines apologized for forcing Kevin Smith off a flight by claiming he was too fat for the seat, it did not censor readers’ comments in its blog. The venting of their anger may have unsettled some leaders with the airline, but the openness with the give-and-take about the situation probably gave it credibility among its regular customers and made them willing to forgive if not forget Southwest for the incident.

I would love to hear your comments on this. Particularly if you think I have offended you with this post – and no, I’m not sorry if that is the case. (Just kidding – but only partially.)

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Dave Minella said...

I think it should be added that it’s important to apologize once and only once.  While you’re at it, take full responsibility. The public is tired of the blame game. Third, and maybe most importantly, correct the mistake now. Tony Hayward may may have been sincerely sorry, but 85 days is a long time to suffer a slow, agonizing career death.

Aug 06, 2010