A PR View Of Ellen’s Apology

It’s not the biggest story in the country today, but it’s instructive for PR and crisis management experts. This week Ellen DeGeneres issued her first on-air apology after reports of her show’s “toxic workplace.” For those who are tapped to help craft redemptive messages for personalities and corporations, a public apology is always useful, and this one was no exception.

Toxic workplace threatens “Ellen” brand

The on-air apology wasn’t the first response to the reports of “racism, intimidation, and fear” at “Ellen” broken by Buzzfeed in July. Early efforts to manage the story were clearly aimed at protecting DeGeneres. Three executive producers released a joint statement taking full responsibility for any problems and pledging to do better. WarnerMedia opened an investigation into the charges. Yet DeGeneres herself did not respond publicly. Two weeks later she wrote a letter to staff which was promptly leaked to the press, of course. In it she seemed to duck blame.

“As we’ve grown exponentially, I’ve not been able to stay on top of everything and relied on others to do their jobs as they knew I’d want them done,” DeGeneres wrote. “Clearly some didn’t. That will now change and I’m committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”

The letter was followed by accusations of sexual misconduct by top producers. After a second Ellen apology to staff during a tearful Zoom meeting, employees learned that three senior executives would be leaving the show. They were also promised better perks and benefits. WarnerMedia installed a dedicated HR executive at the show and a hotline to manage confidential concerns. So, in a PR sense, things were cleaned up. But Ellen had yet to face her viewing audience.

What makes an apology effective?

Monday brought a new season for “Ellen” and was thus her first opportunity to face fans on the air. DeGeneres addressed fans for nearly five minutes in a monologue made a bit surreal because audience members were visible on individual monitors scattered among the seats. She began the apology with a joke (“If you’re watching because you love me, thank you. If you’re watching because you don’t love me, welcome!”) She emphasized that necessary changes had been made and that the show was “starting a new chapter.” In a departure from earlier remarks, she made it clear that she was ultimately accountable.

“I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power. And I realized that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”

The first rule of a good apology is to take responsibility for the situation. It should also focus on those who were harmed, not the one at fault. In her remarks, DeGeneres mostly accomplished both. She pointed out her name on the set and acknowledged that the buck stops with her.  She also spoke at length about those affected.

The last public apology rule is typically the promise of a fix. Here, DeGeneres was vague, but we can assume her fans (and employees, who are in the best position to judge) accept that positive changes have been made. If not, it will surely make news.

Authenticity will out

But the true goal here went beyond a strong mea culpa. DeGeneres had a more difficult objective, which was to regain the trust of fans. Amid the negative fallout over the summer there was a persistent theme – that contrary to appearances, DeGeneres just isn’t a nice person. The bad PR fed into long-swirling rumors that the woman whose brand is linked to her admonition to “Be Kind” is anything but that.

That’s why her monologue had to address the discrepancy. She assured her audience that, while she has bad moments and plenty of flaws, she is who she seems. She seemed to give her audience credit by saying she wasn’t a good enough actress to fake it every day for 17 years. They see her for who she is. It was well delivered and, for fans, reasonably authentic.

DeGeneres was strongest when she talked about what she wants her show to be – essentially “that one hour where people come here to escape and laugh” at a time when the news is often very grim. The remarks skated close to thin ice when she alluded to the many problems that beset us today, as if she wanted to place employee complaints in perspective by comparing the two, but she reined it in well.

Yet what could have been a near-flawless apology earned mixed reviews at best among Ellen-watchers. Most who objected were critical of her jokes, which they called tone-deaf. I’m not a regular “Ellen” viewer, but to my mind the opening quip was a legitimately witty icebreaker and set up the apology well. Yet after the opener, the constant reversion to humor undercut the sincerity of the message. Even when the jokes were self-deprecating, they were distracting and in some cases, not very funny.

In the final analysis, Ellen DeGeneres is a brand, and it’s her brand integrity that is at stake. Maybe the neurotic-seeming deflections into self-referential humor are just part of who she is. It may be what fans love about her, and those who follow and admire her can certainly judge for themselves. But I think DeGeneres fell short. A rawer, more forceful, and more sober-minded apology was called for here, and it’s a shame she couldn’t get there. As she said during her monologue, “I let myself down.”

 

Forget The PR Fauxpology

I apologize in advance to anyone reading this who can’t appreciate the insights offered in this post or who disagrees with the public relations expertise shared here.

See what I did there? Call it the no-pology, the fauxpology, or the if-pology – but it’s far too common today. A cheap and lazy way to publicly express regret, the non-apology is more false than fake news, because literally no one believes it. It places implicit blame on those who were offended. They’re just too sensitive, too unreasonable, or they don’t have a sense of humor. You’re wrong, of course, but I’m really sorry if you feel that way.

Non-pologies are far too common

Jay Rosen pointed out the latest example in a video of Facebook’s CTO stumbling his way through a non-pology to members of the British parliament when challenged on Facebook’s litigation threats to U.K. media. There are unfortunately many more examples of the evasive, manipulative, or even hostile fake apology. The #metoo movement and subsequent toppling of many in positions of power have contributed to the fauxpology trend.

Take actor Kevin Spacey’s response to a younger actor’s allegations of sexual assault. Spacey claims not to remember the incident in question but says that “if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.”

Spacey’s statement is particularly empty because it seeks to both deny the behavior as well as wriggle off the hook for it with syrupy language. Also, it’s not credible.

Timing is important, too. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was famous for his sorry/not sorry statements after outrageous personal and professional conduct came to light. It’s ironic that his first truly sincere apology, to an Uber driver who challenged him about the company’s pricing, came in response to a tirade in which he accused the driver of failing to take responsibility for his own “stuff” (a euphemism.) In the apology, Kalanick admits he needs to “grow up” and pledges to get help. But for the Uber founder, the goodwill bank was empty, and he was ultimately deposed.

It’s time for the PRs, pundits, and lawyers to stop counseling clients to offer mealy-mouthed non-apologies as a way of checking off a box in their own reputation defense, or staving off legal action. They’re unlikely to work, and the public has grown far too smart and cynical to fall for the fauxpology.  For more on how to construct a truly effective public apology, check out this post. But for those not willing (or able) to take responsibility for an action and offer a sincere expression of regret, don’t bother.

How Not To Make A Public Apology

As any PR person will tell you, the public apology has become a ritual for personalities or politicians who’ve made a mistake and need to restore their reputation. But too often it falls short. Call it the fauxpology, the pseudo-apology or, as I prefer, the non-apology. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t work; anyone listening or watching realizes that the would-be apologizer isn’t truly remorseful and calls it for what it is — a sad example of the #sorrynotsorry trend.

This month we saw a stab at something resembling a general mea culpa from Donald Trump for comments causing “personal pain” and a more formal public apology from Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte following his false story about being robbed in Rio. But who’s sorry now? In my view, Lochte’s expression of regret was far more successful, but each offers reminders for what not to say if you want to be taken seriously.

Here, then, are a few lessons from the non-apology rule book.

Don’t take responsibility

Best epitomized by the passive-voiced “mistakes were made” statement, this is the ultimate non-apology. It reeks of bureaucracy and has been used by government institutions, political operatives or mega-corporations who need to acknowledge error but who can’t or won’t assign responsibility. Today, it’s mostly the stuff of parody.

Better yet, shift responsibility to others

This is a time-honored fauxpology tactic best seen in the mealy-mouthed “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” line. It implies that those who are hurt or upset are simply overly sensitive. It’s also become so worn out that it’s not really worth doing. Lochte skirted this trap by making it clear in his interview with Matt Lauer that he was willing to “take ownership” of his “immature, intoxicated” behavior. He loses credibility, however, by minimizing the fact that he originally lied to investigators.

Talk a lot about how bad you feel

Or how misunderstood you were. Even in a personal situation, it’s tempting to wallow in regret, explain the bad behavior, or talk about what it cost you. Remember former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,” after the Deepwater Horizon spill? Not a smart move. A sincere expression of regret is acceptable, but it shouldn’t be about you. And one of the worst ways to express contrition is to go on and on about why or how the misbehavior occurred. It quickly devolves into excuses, and excuses are the enemy of the true apology.

Have a lawyer write it

Ah, the crafted-by-a-committee-of-lawyers statement. This one’s particularly offensive. Legalistic words and hairsplitting terms, particularly those that seek to avoid liability, may be legally smart, but they are not sincere. There are times when a lawyer-vetted statement is unavoidable, but it will not usually promote redemption because the lack of personal responsibility or emotion is apparent. But then, for those accused of serious infractions, it’s sometimes a choice between restoring their reputation or avoiding jail. Avoiding jail usually wins.

Minimize the consequences

To his credit, Trump actually acknowledged that his ill-chosen words might have “caused personal pain,” which won him a couple of points on the apology scorecard. But his lack of specifics and self-justifying windup to the expression of regret were less impressive. It felt instead like a campaign trial balloon to test a kinder, gentler Trump. Acknowledging the consequences of bad behavior is part of taking responsibility.

Do it reluctantly

Some of the most badly received public apologies are those that seem to have been dragged out of someone after days of bad PR. Timing really matters here. Delays enable a drip-drip of negative coverage, while a prompt statement or interview will show sincerity and can help turn a negative news cycle.

Don’t focus on fixing or changing the situation

The most powerful thing you can say in a public apology is often about change. The company recalls its faulty product or fires the sexual harasser; the philandering politician recommits to his marriage; or the entertainer checks into rehab. Better yet is some kind of restitution for those who were harmed. Some fixes are more convincing than others, but even a worn out plan of action, like Anthony Weiner seeking therapy after his (first) Twitter scandal, is better than no commitment to change.

Focus on your fans, not the victim

If an apology is self-serving, it smacks of insincerity. Something that adds authenticity to a true mea culpa is when the offender apologizes privately to the people harmed, out of the spotlight. It was smart of Lochte’s PR counsel to have him give national media interviews in both the U.S. and Brazil to express remorse for his actions. Trump’s semi-apology would have been far stronger if he had already contacted those he insulted. It’s a long list, but had he started with the Khan family, whom he criticized after Khizr Khan’s remarks at the Democratic National Convention, his “regret” would have rung truer.

Be vague

A generalized apology is a non-apology. To have teeth, it should be specific. This is where Trump failed with his “regret” remarks, and where Lochte was more successful by describing what he should have done after the gas station incident. Lochte’s remark that he “should have been more careful and candid” was ultimately inadequate because he actually lied to investigators and the public, but at least he addressed the elephant in the room.

Hide behind a statement

Not every crisis situation warrants active media engagement. Where there’s legal liability or emerging information, a written statement may be adequate. But for purposes of personal redemption after a high-profile gaffe, a well planned sitdown with a carefully selected journalist is often the most compelling forum. It has risks, but I think the face-to-face method carries the most weight, simply because it involves a greater commitment and viewers or readers have more to guide their reaction.

Chris Christie’s Apology PR: A Bridge Too Far?

Who could have thought a traffic snarl – no matter how bad – could escalate into a PR crisis that would threaten a presidential candidacy?

Of course, that’s speculative, but it reflects the hyperbolic, always-on nature of the coverage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s possible involvement in “Bridgegate.” Pundits and adversaries have spent days dropping ominous questions like, “What did the governor know, and when did he know it?”

So how has Christie responded to the scandal? Did he succeed in calming the waters? Building bridges to political enemies? (insert metaphor of choice here.)

Those troubled waters really started swirling when emails came to light that show Christie’s now-ex deputy chief of staff ordered allies at the Port Authority to close traffic lanes leading to the GW bridge to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee because he declined to endorse Christie for reelection.

In a nearly two-hour press conference, Christie started strong, showing his trademark bluntness and making it clear he would answer every single media question, sparing no detail in recounting how he learned about the scandal. He apologized repeatedly to the people of New Jersey, while vehemently denying any prior knowledge of the traffic mess.

The Governor deserves points for taking 80 questions, and for showing patience and stamina. He also managed to channel his anger into the expression of regret rather than being defensive or dismissive. There were no mealy-mouthed platitudes here. He used words like “heartbroken” and “sick”, while reporting that he had fired those culpable without so much as a conversation. While maintaining he knew nothing of his aides’ actions, he accepted responsibility – in general, Trumanesque terms – for the traffic mess.

But Christie’s mea culpa fell short in other ways. First, he was very self-referential – spending too much time on his own embarrassment, anger, and damaged reputation. He also broke the infamous Richard Nixon (“I am not a crook!”) rule by denying a negative when proclaiming, “I am not a bully.” That, of course, suggests that he might be a bully, or reminds us that some people think so.

Most importantly, he avoided any responsibility or explanation for a culture where political power was used for retaliation by those closest to him, in a way that evidence suggests was almost routine. A good chief executive will close the loop by explaining what went wrong, taking the blame for a systemic failure, and showing how it might be fixed. The governor clearly hopes that the Fort Lee scandal will be seen as a freak occurrence, rather than a natural outgrowth of a petty, hyperpartisan, and, yes,  bullying, culture.

The investigation will no doubt show what the Governor knew, if anything. But given his history, and the seniority of those involved in creating the fake traffic study, the apology may not be enough. For a larger-than-life guy like Chris Christie, true humility and transparency may simply be “a bridge too far.”

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.

Is "Apologize" A Dirty Word?

This election season has given rise to a new term of shame. It’s “apologize.” GOP nominee Mitt Romney never tires of criticizing President Obama for what he claims is the president’s constant “apologizing” for America. What bothers me as a professional communicator isn’t just that no one in the Romney camp can seem to point to the apology in question. It’s also the implied equivalence. Romney equates apologizing with moral failure, a craven lack of patriotism, and weakness. And to be fair, so do many of his Democratic rivals.

But a well executed public apology is not just a communication strategy for repairing reputation damage. At its best, it conveys responsibility and leadership. Tim Cook’s recent mea culpa is evidence of that. Despite the runaway success of the iPhone 5, Apple was harshly criticized by users who found themselves running around in circles due to the phone’s flawed map application. So, Cook took the direct route in facing customer frustration. He got to the point, didn’t mince words, and even recommended that disappointed Maps users turn to competitive apps and tools until Apple can get it right.

His response had all the classic ingredients of a true apology: he took responsibility, pledged to fix the problem, and offered, if not restitution, at least, alternatives. Most importantly, his restatement of Apple’s mission “to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers,” and emphasis on the gap between expectations and user experience in this case actually reminds us of just how high are expectations of Apple are…and how often they are met.

And for many Apple fans, the mea culpa moment may have been the first time when many thought that Cook handled the situation more skillfully than his former boss, Steve Jobs. Though Jobs often said it’s best to ‘fess up to mistakes (“It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations”), he was famously defensive. With his humble but sincere-sounding statement, Cook actually did Jobs one better.

If only Washington and those who aspire to serve there could do half as well.

Jason Alexander’s Apology Is A PR Homerun

We communications pros like to use words like authenticity, transparency, and honesty. Too often, they’re empty cliches. But every now and then, they jump out at you.

Take the latest public apology to go viral. I don’t know anything about cricket, so when I read that actor Jason Alexander had called the game “gay” in an on-camera conversation with  Craig Ferguson, it was confusing and didn’t really mean much at first. In fact, it reminded me of the ancient Seinfeld episode when George Costanza claims he’s homosexual in an obvious and ridiculous bid to bond with a Manhattan coop board member who is himself openly gay….in other words, more self-satire than anything else.

But Alexander’s comedy was met with some hardball criticisms by GLAAD, who saw ugliness in the cricket bit. So Alexander said he was sorry. Not just with a sound bite, or a tweet, or the mealy-mouthed non-apology, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” This one was a homerun…or whatever you call it in cricket.

His statement is a terrific example of how a public apology should be executed. And how any public communication around a sensitive issue might be handled, if the individual or corporation really cares enough to do so. It’s thoughtful, sincere, and deeply honest. No defensiveness and no excuses offered… how refreshing! What’s particularly persuasive is that Alexander admits that, at first, he had no idea why the bit was offensive to many gay colleagues and viewers. “I didn’t get it,” he says.

Then he takes us through the evolution of his thinking, realizing that playing into “hurtful assumptions and diminishments” begets ugly, or bullying behavior And he doesn’t let himself off the hook because he’s a comedian by profession; because he has lots of gay friends; or because his schtick is the lovable nerd. Quite the contrary. He realizes he should meet a higher standard because of all those things.

But the most impressive thing about the statement is the insight that gay jokes and other stereotypes are hurtful precisely because we, as a culture, are still battling ignorance and bias.

So, I would like to say – I now get it. And to the extent that these jokes made anyone feel even more isolated or misunderstood or just plain hurt – please know that was not my intention, at all or ever. I hope we will someday live in a society where we are so accepting of each other that we can all laugh at jokes like these and know that there is no malice or diminishment intended.

But we are not there yet.

He’s right, we’re not, not by a long shot. But when it comes to honest communication and reputation repair, I think he is.

o.b.’s Apology PR Campaign Is Pitch-Perfect

Maybe it should have known better than to tangle with women at, well, a certain time of the month.

After J&J began to discontinue its o.b. Ultra line of tampons, its loyal users felt betrayed. The brand was smacked with  infuriated customer comments, “girlcott” threats, an online petition and general user crankiness. But instead of defensiveness, or a by-the-book apology, the brand went one better.

Make that miles better. o.b. took advantage of the potential of customizable video with a hilarious, relevant, and compulsively shareable mea culpa called “Triple Sorry.” All you need to do is type in your first name to be serenaded with a soulful, over-the-top apology ballad, belted out by a central-casting boyfriend behind a white grand piano on the beach. Just for you. And thousands of your best girlfriends.

We talk about wooing customers, but this gives new meaning to the term “consumer engagement.” The video reminds me of the brilliant “Flight of the Conchords” in that it perfectly satirizes the cheesy, overindulgent music video, complete with doves, rainbows, and personalized skywriting. Sure, we’ve seen this gimmick before, but when the singer croons your name in a husky whisper, you can’t help but giggle.

It’s possibly the best apology a girl could want. It’s so pitch-perfect, in fact, that I nearly forgot the main thing, which is that the brand has pledged to bring back the Ultra line and never again to leave its faithful customers wanting.  A downloadable product coupon sweetens the promise.

“Triple Sorry” is a social media and marketing home run. As every funny guy knows, women will forgive a lot if you make us laugh. Call me lovestruck, but the brand’s use of the medium, and of humor, is pretty irresistible. It has me convinced its customers will not only forgive o.b.’s formerly callous treatment of them, but forget the past and recommit to the brand. That’s true romance.

PR Means Having To Say You’re Sorry

The sad and sudden demise of pop superstar Michael Jackson may have knocked Governor Mark Sanford off the front pages for a weekend, but it didn’t let him off the hook. Governor Sanford’s may have been the most ill-conceived and badly delivered apology of the decade. And, that’s saying something.

I was one of several PR professionals who commented on the Sanford press briefing for PR Newser, but given its timeliness I wanted to share some general guidelines for “apology communications” based on recent events.

Have a goal.  As with an ordinary public relations program, a public apology should be developed with an end in mind. Though they might all be desirable, keeping one’s job, saving one’s reputation, and staying out of jail could call for different messaging and communications strategies. Prioritizing for the best outcome is essential.

Keep it short. Resist the temptation to drag it out, justify, explain, excuse, or embroider. TMI is a lose-lose strategy. Stick to what’s relevant.

Make it other-centered.  Going on about one’s failings (as John Edwards did in some detail) or rambling about your love for the Appalachian trail (where Governor Sanford wasn’t hiking) is counterproductive, and it will be seen as self-involved.

Take responsibility. Lawyers will disagree on this if there’s a legal infraction involved, but an apology without a specific mea culpa is pretty toothless.  It’s human nature to want someone to own up to their actions rather than avoiding or placing blame, and it’s also character-building for the one delivering the apology.

Focus on the public consequences, not the private ones.  Like former Governor Eliot Spitzer, those caught in a sex scandal often use their media time to apologize to their families, since they figure voters will identify with the spouse and kids. But, the offender needs to grapple with the impact on his staff and constituents/supporters, which is often more significant.  I’d argue that Sanford’s disappearing act, out of range of his staff or security detail, and his clumsy attempts to lie his way out of it, superseded his extramarital activities.

Don’t drag in the innocent bystanders. The days of needing to see the wronged spouse in a show of marital solidarity are largely over.  (Who can forget Dina McGreevey’s odd smile, or Silda Spitzer’s haunted eyes?) And, singling out the children by name – as Governor Sanford did – is just thoughtless.

Be measured in expressing emotion. I’m a big fan of showing appropriate fighting spirit where justified, but in a public apology, a little goes a long way. It’s best to signal your intentions for subsequent statements (“I’ll fight to regain the respect of my constituents”) but weeping and anger deserve a more private venue. Move on.