People screw up apologies all the time. I’ve studied this for years and published the 6 As of apologies in 2015 to help people remember to Acknowledge something happened; have an Authentic expression of regret; use Appropriate tone and language; choose an Acceptable venue; Act in the right timeframe, and Announce next steps.
This advice could have come in handy to those profiled in a recent Washington Post article: The 10 Weirdest Celebrity Apologies of 2021. These serve as reminders of how botched apologies can make situations worse and keep them in the news longer.
It’s sad—but no surprise—that the classic non-apology apology appears in this piece. It’s what actor/comedian Harry Shearer once called the "ifpology." You know. These are the “If I offended you… If I hurt you… If I said something insulting…” lines that practically define the term cop-out. People need to have the courage—to be accountable—and change the “If” to “I”.
It’s hard to find an excuse for the self-inflicted wounds caused by thoughtless, hurtful, and unnecessary language. You’d think celebrities (and politicians and business leaders), who have access to staff and outside advisors, could avoid the avoidable. The Washington Post piece noted how “plenty of stars… [were] calling their publicists” to deal with their messes.
So, here’s the question: If professional publicists were involved, how did these celebrities compound their mistakes and create even more problems? Possible answers include:
- They said they were seeking counsel when they were not
- They received bad advice and used it
- They received good advice but refused to implement it
We’ll never know, of course. But if the celebs (or others) received good advice and didn’t use it, could the public relations counselors have been more persuasive? Did they have the trust of their clients? Did they build support or alliances to bring additional, competent, compassionate voices to the table?
I’ve faced scenario #3 a number of times and tried my best, and I’m sure many who are reading this can say the same. At the end of the day, though, the clients did what they wanted; the outcome didn’t match what we got paid to do. If people knew we were involved, well, it didn’t look good for anyone. And you can’t always publicly distance yourself from the debacle; there might be contractual or ethical constraints.
A phenomenon seen in too many public pronouncements is when one can see right through an apology—the work of a PR advisor being so obvious. Here are a few examples where good apologies are undermined because they’re either visibly forced or fake, or both:
• Heather Chase from Bravo’s “reality” series Below Deck apologized for saying the N-word (more than once) in front of her Black co-star Rayna Lindsey. Her statement posted on Instagram: “I am sorry for the hurt my ignorance caused Rayna in tonight’s episode. While I apologized to Rayna throughout the season, I cannot express enough how truly remorseful I am. Part of my responsibility as Chief Stewardess is to provide a welcoming, safe environment for the crew and I fell short. Over the past nine months since this episode was filmed, I have learned how my words and actions can affect others and I vow to do better in the future.”
• Justin Timberlake apologized to his wife, Jessica Biel, after being seen holding hands with Palmer costar Alisha Wainwright. His statement was posted, like the example above, on Instagram: "A few weeks ago I displayed a strong lapse in judgment—but let me be clear—nothing happened between me and my costar. I drank way too much that night and I regret my behavior. I should have known better. This is not the example I want to set for my son. I apologize to my amazing wife and family for putting them through such an embarrassing situation, and I am focused on being the best husband and father I can be. This was not that."
• A contestant on “reality” TV’s The Bachelor, Rachel Kirkconnell, came under fire for past racist behaviors. Her statement was posted—you guessed it—on Instagram: “While there have been rumors circulating, there have also been truths that have come to light that I need to address. I hear you, and I’m here to say I was wrong. At one point, I didn’t recognize how offensive and racist my actions were, but that doesn’t excuse them. My age or when it happened does not excuse anything. They are not acceptable or okay in any sense. I was ignorant, but my ignorance was racist. Racial progress and unity are impossible without accountability, and I deserve to be held accountable for my actions. I will never grow unless I recognize what I have done is wrong. I don’t think one apology means that I deserve your forgiveness, but rather I hope I can earn your forgiveness through my future actions.”
If you’re going to write an apology for someone, it should be made in their voice. And do more than release a prepared statement on social media (for crying out loud) and do it quickly, not days or weeks later. If your spewed on a broadcast, get back out there and clear it up. If a group or organization was the target, find a meaningful activity to support that community. If an individual was involved, go and make it personal, face-to-face. Bottom line: If you truly want to try and right a wrong, do more than check a box.
Paul Oestreicher, Ph.D., is a recognized expert in strategic communication, public affairs and issues, crisis and reputation management. He is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table and the blog C-O-I-N-S: Communication Opinions, Insights and New Strategies. Follow him @pauloestreicher.