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A PR Review of the Best and Worst Public Apologies

Given the accelerated pace of social media sharing, a simple slip can quickly escalate to something approaching a PR crisis. Sometimes the “crisis” is partly imaginary, and in other cases, it could be nipped with one simple thing: a sincere, well-crafted public apology.

Problem is, apologizing is a dying communications art. Here’s an analysis of a few recent mea culpas.

Home Depot needed a quick fix after a Twitter update about a college football promotion that many saw as racist. After it kicked off a storm of criticism, the company deleted the post and replaced it with an apology that called it “stupid and offensive.” It fired the company behind the social updates and tweeted individual messages to everyone who complained. It was the same, formulaic apology to all, but 140 characters isn’t much, and in my book, it deserves credit for the swift and contained handling of the issue. Nothing more was needed; the tweets delivered the necessary brand repairs.

Lululemon founder Chip Wilson also slipped during a Bloomberg interview about his wife’s meditation site. What should have been a cakewalk turned into a lulu of an interview when he was asked about the company’s product recall and complaints of fabric pilling. Caught short, Wilson meandered through an awkward response, saying “some women’s bodies don’t work” and blaming problems on “rubbing through the thighs.”  The actual comment isn’t so terrible, but it rubbed some people the wrong way, including Lulu fans.

The gaffe had such, um, legs, that, a week later, Wilson posted an apology video on Facebook. Wilson’s delivery is sincere, but the message lacks context, and it seems directed to Lulu employees, which is confusing. The negative comments posted may signal that the escalation of the apology was an unnecessary exercise.

A far graver mea culpa was delivered on Sunday by CBS broadcast journalist Lara Logan. During the final minute of “60 Minutes” Logan apologized for a story the network had run October 27 about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. It seems the story, which the network had stoutly defended, featured a star eyewitness, a state department security contractor who said he was at the U.S. compound, but whose incident report about the raid placed him elsewhere. Logan admitted errors, explaining that the network was “misled” by its source, and ending by saying it was “deeply sorry.” There was no real explanation of what seems like a highly avoidable mistake, nor did Logan mention the network’s failure to disclose that a CBS subsidiary is publishing a tell-all book by the same security officer. Hmmm. Highly embarrassing, and CBS did itself no favors with the terse and wholly inadequate apology.

But the mother of all public apologies has to belong to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. As the world knows, after months of stonewalling, Ford admitted to using crack cocaine to a gaggle of media. The admission was extraordinary for a few reasons. First, Ford blamed his previous denials on the journalists’ failure to “ask the right questions.”  To that nonsensical justification, he added his excuse;  the drug use occurred, said Ford, “during one of my drunken stupors.”

As late-night talk show hosts reveled in the comedy of Ford’s confession, the Mayor delivered a direct apology to the city in which he took responsibility for “letting them down.”  But the mea culpa was pretty half-baked. Ford left without facing media questions, never responding to calls for his resignation and without any pledge to avoid drug use or consider that he might have an addiction problem. In fact, he seemed to pat himself on the back, calling his apology “the right thing to do” and confessing, “I have nothing left to hide.”  Perhaps that’s true, but there’s much more to say here, and the Ford story is probably far from over.

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