By Gayle Lynn Falkenthal
Harvey Weinstein. Cam Newton. Ben Affleck. Mark Zuckerberg. Dove and Budweiser. We could go on. A search for "public apology" generates nine million individual results.
Making an effective public apology seems nearly impossible. Some dig the original hole of public outrage deeper. The parade of pathetic regrets makes them impossible to distinguish from a "Saturday Night Live" routine. It's doubtful you can recall any public apology you found honest and believable. Go ahead and try.
Most public figures and CEOs employ advisors and consultants from well-paid public relations firms who claim to be experts in reputation management. You think they would know what they're doing when it comes to helping craft the perfect mea culpa. Why then is it so difficult to make an apology stick and succeed?
It's tempting to blame lawyers for this. It's true legal counsel wants to avoid a CEO apology taking responsibility for harming customers, teeing up a massive class action lawsuit. Attorneys are risk averse; it's their job. Their focus is a court of law, not the court of public opinion.
An apology doesn't mean falling on the sword. Done right, an apology will help turn down the heat. But that's all.
A public relations crisis doesn't end with an apology. The apology begins the process of repairing the behavior and delivering proof of change. When you're wronged someone, a quick fix isn't possible. Steel yourself for reality.
Two specific actions must take place before an apology is successful. First, someone needs to acknowledge harm and take responsibility for it, full stop. Second, the bad actor needs to rectify their behavior, and produce proof of change. This process takes time.
You can jump start the timeline with a proper apology. The American public is extraordinarily forgiving, and they'll step back and give you a chance. Then it's time to get to work. Most apologies fall flat because they lack key elements.
When you hurt someone, it's not a passive act no matter how much you rationalize it. Passive-aggressive apologies are a dead giveaway of avoiding real responsibility. "If we made a mistake, we're sorry" or "I'm sorry if our actions caused offense" puts the blame elsewhere. The apology spotlight has to shine firmly on the culprit, acknowledge the victim, and take responsibility. "I did something crummy. It was inexcusable, and I am sorry."
Many apologies start this way, so far so good. Then one little word ruins them - if or but. "We are sincerely sorry... but there was a malfunction." "I'm sorry ... if my comments unintentionally offended anyone."
No. The words "but" or "if" in an apology automatically invalidates it. These words tee up an excuse, or deflect blame. A true apology starts by focusing on your own actions, and how you hurt people. Period.
Effective apologies don't try to assign the percentage of blame. Lawsuits or insurance claims can assign 40 percent fault to you and 60 percent fault to the other part. Let's repeat: an apology addresses your behavior and your actions alone. Nothing else.
Apologies fall flat when the wrongdoer wallows in their own suffering. Your suffering is due to your own actions. You've been caught, you've been humiliated, it's unpleasant. Even if the hurt rises to the same level as your victim, it's self-imposed. You had a choice. Your victims didn't have any choice. Take your lumps and learn from them.
Part two of a successful apology requires you to take action to prevent repeating your harmful actions. An apology without any change in behavior or processes ends up being worthless. Serious harm, insults, or betrayals require a lot of work to repair them. This cannot happen overnight. No one is "fixed" solely by an apology. This is where so many individuals and companies go wrong. The apology is the beginning, not the ending.
Acknowledge the specific action. Acknowledge the people who you hurt - who YOU hurt, not "who were hurt." Acknowledge what needs to change. Then change it. Don't act like a hero for doing the right thing, the thing you should have done right in the first place.
This is where a public relations expert can be of enormous value - by helping you to communicate real and lasting results of change. Know the public will be watching and waiting before they forgive you.
The reason apologies are so tough for celebrities and CEOs is because apologies require humility. Short of the Dalai Lama, not a lot of famous folks got to where they are through their humility.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a veteran strategic communication and crisis response consultant. She is the president of the Falcon Valley Group based in San Diego, California Connect with Gayle on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/falconvalleygroup/