The Art of Apology

Reis_BlogImageIn times of controversy, Elton John was right. Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Look no further than Bill Clinton, Paula Deen and British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward.

In what The Atlantic calls “one of the most famous apologies in modern American history,” President Bill Clinton sounded stony and defiant in August 1998 when, after seven months of denials, he delivered a televised speech admitting to a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Paula Deen’s ill-fated 2013 apology tour for using a racial epithet resulted in the loss of sponsors such as The Food Network, QVC and Walmart, and ultimately, led to the downfall of her cooking empire.

And, who doesn’t wince at Hayward’s non-apology during the Gulf oil spill crisis in 2010 and his now famous line, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

When it comes to the art of apology, how can we get it right? The Atlantic cited research that suggests effective apologies – meaning those that are accepted by an offended party – all tend to share a set of underlying features. Issues management expert Paul Oestreicher, Ph.D. agrees. In The 6 As: A New Model for Apologies, Oestreicher outlines a strategy to develop and measure the effectiveness of public apologies:

  1. Acknowledging something has happened. If there’s no acceptance of responsibility, there’s no foundation on which to build a future relationship. Don’t tap dance around the details.
  2. Authentic expression of regret. When an apology demonstrates an authentic expression of remorse, it is heartfelt, it is real, and it is something to which the audience can feel and connect. Ben Franklin said it best, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
  3. Appropriate tone and language. The mood, tenor and words must fit both the person apologizing and the audience for which the apology is intended.
  4. Acceptable venue. Location determines who and how many will receive the message, and will help set the tone of the apology.
  5. Acting in the right timeframe. A delay or hesitation could result in mounting suspicion and a missed opportunity to correct the situation.
  6. Announcing next steps. Demonstrating how the offense won’t be repeated can be vital in rebuilding trust and reputation.

Saying “I’m sorry” to the public is an important element of crisis communications – and one that companies need to prepare for in advance.

Carolyn Reis, APR, is a veteran public relations consultant nationally trained in crisis communications. Her firm, Orlando-based Reis Corporate Public Relations, focuses on serving the strategic marketing communications needs of business-to-business clients in Florida and national companies with a Florida presence. You can reach her at or on Twitter @carolynreisapr.

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