How Not To Apologize

Terrible explanations for terrible behavior are perversely fascinating — especially to PRs and professional communicators. They’re also instructive. It takes a well-crafted and sincere apology to explain away repugnant speech or actions, and even the best mea culpas can fall short. But lately there have been some doozies.

In an episode unlikely to be matched anytime in the near future, former Georgia state representative Jason Spencer was videotaped dropping his pants and screaming racial epithets while running backwards for the Sacha Baron Cohen show “Who is America?”.  Baron Cohen, of course, is a notorious prankster who specializes in making people look ridiculous. And in this show he’s unrecognizable posing as an Israeli anti-terrorism expert (props to the makeup crew.) But Spencer’s initial response to the video’s release was that he did it because he was afraid for his life. That’s right, he claimed that his “fears (of terrorists) were so heightened” that he was unable to think clearly or understand what he was doing. (He sure doesn’t look scared in his bare-assed scamper; he looks ridiculous.)

Jason Spencer’s pranking is so bizarre that no apology would have sufficed, so his resignation was inevitable. But the “terrorists made me do it” defense adds an extra dimension of humiliation to his exit. He would have been better off with an explanation that took responsibility for his little escapade. Something like, “The people behind the show set out to make me look like a racist fool, and I stupidly complied. Fortunately the only person I truly harmed was myself.”

In a slightly less outrageous instance, Papa John’s founder John Schnatter is embroiled in a public fight with company officers after he, too, apparently used the n-word during a media training session with a marketing agency. Schnatter stepped away from the company and apologized, yet even as he did so, he insisted that the agency team had coerced him to utter the word. (He later claimed the agency CEO blackmailed him over the comment, and the situation has devolved further since the initial apology.)

It seems improbable that an agency coaching an executive on better interview techniques would urge him to blurt out a racist slur. But even if true, why would Schnatter comply? After all, he’s a brash entrepreneur who’s never been afraid to go his own way. He’s the client. The boss. It’s not reasonable to blame his behavior on someone else, and it undermines the initial apology and whatever is left of his public reputation. His explanation prolonged the story and did him no credit.

We see this kind of whataboutism and finger-pointing in CEOs, politicians (including the president, of course), and entertainers. But here’s the bottom line: the worse the offense, the better and more sincere the apology must be. Blaming others, even when justified, just isn’t a good look. Taking responsibility is step one in an effective public apology. It shouldn’t be that hard.

As a contrast, look at Khloe Kardashian’s tweeted apology after she called sister Kourtney a “retard” on an Instagram livestream. Her offense may not rise to the level of others here, and her tweet isn’t very articulate or dignified. But in her swift and simple response, Kardashian agrees, owns the mistake, and pledges to be better. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

When A Founder Does PR Damage

For a fast-growing startup, a dynamic founder can be a huge PR asset. A charismatic entrepreneur is the face of his brand, its best media spokesperson, and the embodiment of its values. The most talented can attract a top workforce and inspire it to achieve beyond expectations. From Steve Jobs to Marc Benioff, the examples of PR-savvy founders are varied, but they share many of the same attributes.

Have charisma, will backfire

But what happens when the founder’s impact turns toxic? Take the recent soap opera unfolding around Papa John’s founder John Schnatter.  Forced to resign as chairman of the business he started after an ugly, racially-tinged episode came to light, Schnatter is fighting back. He’s now blaming the marketing agency involved in a media training session for goading him into uttering a racist word. Although Papa John’s has recovered a bit from a stock price drop right after the scandal broke, nothing about this is good for the brand or the business. Who can focus on competitors when the founder is his own – and the company’s – worst enemy?

Elon Musk also made waves with a self-inflicted PR crisis this week — this one on a more global scale. Musk was enjoying mostly positive coverage after his company’s prototype submarine became a sidebar as a possible aid in the rescue of the boys trapped in the Thailand cave. Happily, the sub wasn’t needed for the rescue, but when one of the cave divers criticized it as a “PR stunt,” Musk exploded. He tweeted an angry response and called the diver a “pedo.” The insult to a true hero of the high-stakes rescue naturally brought a furious backlash. Musk walked back his comment and deleted the tweets, but the tantrum startled investors and caused a temporary drop in the share price of Tesla, Musk’s troubled electric car company.

It’s the Travis Kalanick problem. Sometimes the very qualities that lead an entrepreneur to achieve extraordinary success can spell trouble as a company matures. When it comes to taking on the risks and obstacles involved in scaling a world-class business, brazen self-regard and iron confidence are useful. But when confidence metastasizes into arrogance and self-interest, the company’s reputation – even its very survival — can be placed in jeopardy.

Boards must wrangle renegade founders

So, what’s the answer? In most cases it falls to Board members and investors to wrangle a toxic founder before things go irretrievably bad. Gene Munster, founder of VC firm Loup Ventures, offers relevant advice in an open letter to Elon Musk following the cave diver episode. Munster advises Musk to ignore short sellers and reminds him that the perception of “think-skinned and short-tempered” leadership is not helpful to his company.

Thankfully, the road to regaining investor confidence is well traveled. It starts with an apology. Then, focus your message on your progress toward achieving Tesla’s mission. You might consider taking a Twitter sabbatical. Twitter might keep Tesla in the news but it won’t help continued improvements in production and product.

Board members, officers, and investors have a critical responsibility here, and one’s that’s increasingly being scrutinized among venture-backed tech companies as well as others. The Theranos fraud showed the consequences of a board that’s overly credulous, asleep at the controls, or badly chosen.

There are always warning signs. A deeper look into Papa John’s reveals a company that in the words of one former employee, is a “public company operated like it is privately owned.” Founder Schnatter has a history of controversy; he resigned under pressure in 2005, only to return three years later to install cronies in top company and board positions. The red flags were there.
Real leadership means making the proper corrections or ultimately the painful changes that can ensure a successful company’s survival, even if that means the guy who started it is the one who needs to go.