Mind Your Media: The Basics of Issuing Public Apologies And Why So Many Fail Miserably at It

by Aileen Pincus

Leaders make mistakes. That’s a truth and an inevitability. It’s what happens after the mistake that either saves and even enhances your repution, or destroys it. It might be a human tendency to duck blame, circle the wagons, distract and pivot, but avoidance techniques if they work at all, will only serve to make the repair work harder. The evidence of late suggests those in the public eye could use some reminders about the basics of issuing a public apology to stop the bleeding of a reputation under fire for a careless statement or misdeed.

Take Rapper DaBaby’s recent apology for his comments aimed at singling out anyone attending his concert that might be on the verge of dying as he put it, from AHIV/AIDS. After meeting immediate backlash from the off-handed insults, the Rapper first blamed social media for the ensuing uproar, saying “people want to demolish you before you even have the opportunity to grow, educate and learn from your mistakes.” He hadn’t even admitted a mistake or issued an effective apology, before complaining he hadn’t been able to quiet the outrage.

Or consider the head of the Michigan Republican Party blaming the “increasingly vitriolic political environment” after he was caught on tape calling the three highest ranking women leaders of his state “witches”. Predictably, none of the “apologies” either kept issuing went over well.

So what are the key elements to remember in an effective apology?

  1. AuthenticityYou’ll notice in both examples and countless others, blame is shifted elsewhere. An “I’m sorry” can’t be followed by a “but” and be effective. (Side note, that also includes those who try and issue the back-handed apology “to anyone offended,” yet another qualifier used too often. This signals the one apologizing is assigning blame elsewhere, as though there is some lingering doubt as to the offensiveness of the word or deed.)
  2. Recognition of harm: For an apology to be considered sincere, there has to be some acknowledgement of the harm to someone else, whether or not it was intentional. The person responsible has to show that they understand what they’ve done, it’s impact on others, and not just issue an apology that those listening believe is simply a bow to pressure.
  3. Make it RightWhat are you going to do, to the extent you can, to rectify the harm committed? As the offender, it’s your responsibility to not only ask for forgiveness, and regardless of whether it’s given, right the situation if and wherever possible. Remember, it’s not up to those wronged to forgive and move on. It’s up to you as the offender to apologize meaningfully, understand the harm so it won’t be repeated, and do what you can to earn that forgiveness through action.

For those in leadership positions particularly, mastering the true public apology is essential. Reputations, careers and entire companies and organizations can suffer enormous harm after a crisis of confidence, no matter how long before the stumble you’ve spent building a solid reputation.

It won’t be easy. If apologizing for mistakes were, there wouldn’t be so many easy examples you find almost daily of public apologies gone awry. As those headlines will tell you, we seem to have decided even a poorly worded and delivered “I’m sorry” should be good enough, but it never is. Actually, it never has been.

Do recognize that any public figure or leader in any field, in any capacity, can find themselves in the position of needing to apologize. Even if the harm wasn’t committed by the leader in an organization, as leader you’ll be judged on whether you take responsibility for the words or actions that harm others.

Whether for lack of humility or the simple inability to recognize harm, the landscape is littered with those who’ve destroyed years of hard-fought gains in public reputation with the lack of a meaningful apology. Remember the basics of an effective apology so the reputation you care most about won’t be one of them.

About the author

Aileen Pincus leads The Pincus Group, an executive communications training firm headquartered in Washington DC. TPG provides training and consulting in media, public speaking, presentation skills, messaging and crisis communication for clients in the US and Europe. Both in person and remote training is available in customized sessions for clients in the private and public sectors. http://www.thepincusgroup.com 301-938-6990