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.
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.