“APology theatRe”

Dov Seidman

Dov Seidman

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s recent column for The New York Times, “Too Many Sorry Excuses for an Apology” focused on the recent barrage of “I’m sorrys” from leaders when something went wrong or offended people.  In the article, social observer Dov Seidman labeled what we’ve been seeing as “apology theater.”

Target’s chief executive, Gregg W. Steinhafel, apologized for a security breach that affected as many as 110 million customers,” Sorkin wrote. “Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase apologized, multiple times, for his firm’s regulatory lapses.  Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey apologized for controversial bridge lane closings and traffic jams.  The venture capitalist Tom Perkins apologized after comparing the treatment of America’s wealthiest to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.  LeBron James apologized for using the word ‘retarded,’ calling it a ‘bad habit.’

“The age of the apology is clearly upon us — and it is not just about being polite,” Sorkin continued. “It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis. The art of the apology has become a carefully choreographed dance: Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are ‘taking responsibility’ and then end with, ‘I hope to put this behind me.'”

“We must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something, but rather to get into a new mode of thought and behavior. It’s a beginning, not an end,” Seidman said. “…Leaders in apology mode (should) conduct a ‘moral audit’ that includes a hard look at ‘How did I get here and how did I drift from the person I aspire to be?’”

When I talk about PR crises in class, I suggest a four-step process for dealing with the aftermath: first, acknowledge the problem and apologize; then show sincere empathy for those who were negatively affected; tell everyone how the mistake will be fixed; and finally, fix the problem.  As Seidman points out, sometimes the problem is within the person who created it.  Even still, there’s still no substitute for a well-articulated public apology.  Your thoughts?

45 responses

  1. I like Seidman’s process of apology, as it moves past just saying “I’m sorry.” It seems like many people are under the impression that an apology can stop at “I regret this incident,” when in fact the conversation should continue into “I have learned” and “things will change so this never happens again.” BP had a huge issue with this during the Gulf of Mexico disaster after CEO Tony Hayward was quoted as saying “I just want my life back.” Bad move!! The focus is not on how the incident affects the person apologizing, but rather on how the person apologizing will change themselves and their company because of the incident.

  2. Apologies are a part of life. No one is perfect so there will be a time a where you are going to have to apologize. Your goal as a leader is to minimize and correct the mistakes.

  3. Francesco Vivacqua | Reply

    Apologies are used by people in the lime light to defuse their mistake. Sometimes apologies are overused, but the are only futile when the mistake is not fixed. If a famous person makes a mistake, apologizes and actually fixes the issue(s), then it is the right course to take. I believe the biggest problem for a famous person is to not acknowledge mistakes and never apologize. This comes of as insincere and uncaring. I think that from a PR standpoint, this would be a bigger problem. That being said, I believe that all famous people should be mindful of how they use his/her apologies and never overuse it.

  4. There are two sentences that I appreciate so much in this article. First is “We must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something.” Another is “It’s a beginning, not an end.” When a crisis occurs, the leader should apologize as soon as possible, which will show his or her sincerity and responsibility. Even though the leader can’t solve the problem immediately, apology will calm public down. An active attitude is necessary when there is a crisis. Apology can help to pacify public, but it doesn’t mean apology is the way to solve problem. Action must be the only way to solve a crisis problem.

  5. “We must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something, but rather to get into a new mode of thought and behavior. It’s a beginning, not an end…” I loved this quote. I think this applies to everything in life: the PR world and personal world. I mean, the prime example of this post is definitely the BP oil spill and Tony Hayward just “wanting his life back”.

  6. As PR majors we are taught the two types of PR, proactive and reactive. It is crucial that organizations stay proactive and continually interact with the public so that when a crisis occurs “I apologize” isn’t the first that anyone has heard from you. It is equally as important to have good reactive PR and respond to crises by apologizing to the public and stating how you are working to fix the problem. Apologies cannot simply stand alone. At the same time, the more apologies you make you lose credibility, which is not easily won back.

  7. I am glad that celebrities and public officials are taking responsibility for their actions and their poor judgment, but I feel like people are getting fed up hearing apologies over and over again. I think that the best remedy would be- think before you speak. It is a crucial step to avoid any trouble with the public, but the one that public persons always recklessly skip. I think that it is important to properly and articulately apologize, but I also think that an apology can only take you so far. So everyone needs to think before they speak, so that they don’t have to apologize in the first place. If they really can’t help it then they should stick to the old reckless behavior, but make sure they hire really good PR practitioners to clean up the mess.

  8. An apology should be a sincere, earnest first step in rectifying a public relations’ nightmare but unfortunately the apology has become a cliché. Essentially, it’s been reduced to “to whom it may concern” at the beginning of a form letter, just another necessary yet overlooked practice. Apologies need to have some action behind them to be taken seriously. Even outside of pr cases people apologize for everything. There is definitely a need for more action and less lukewarm apologies.

  9. An “apology tour” is indeed needed to survive a public relations fiasco. The act of apologizing with a public announcement or forum goes along way. The sincerity of apology is what will help regain public trust. How forgiving the public is towards those in hot water weighs heavily on how the apology and solution to the issue are delivered. If done well and the figure is forgiven than a very well done public relations campaign took place an we benefit as a whole.

  10. Apologizing has become the first step to a mistake. However, I feel it has become overplayed. It has become apology after apology during a mistake by a politician or even an athlete during a press conference. But I think in our culture, if you don’t apologize, the public will continue to look at the figure/company a negative light. Public apologies should be done the correct way. Not just words, but actions as well.

  11. I think that an apology is the foundation to beginning a remedy for crisis management. Simply apologizing doesn’t cure the issue at large. Its important to keep your integrity and your word because if the issue continues your words will no longer be effective. As the saying goes “actions speak louder than words” make your words the stepping stones for your actions.

  12. Seidman is absolutely right when expressing his feeling about apology. Now a days being “sorry” is either look passed for some people and forced upon by others. So many important people are put into positions where there is no room for error and when there is error an apology is demanded. An apology is very important and must be sincere. Often times people are penalized for the things they say and it is a reflection on the people who work above them. In PR it is important to realize your crisis and act upon when something is not done right. It is when you respond immediately that things workout for the better. Seidman’s take on how people act upon and react upon apology is very spot on.

  13. I agree that an apology is extremely essential. When a crisis or incident occurs, the first step the CEO should take is an apology to the public. It reassures the audience and makes them feel as if the company really does care. Even if the crisis is not entirely the CEO’s fault, an apology is still necessary. If there is no apology made, the company will have a difficult time recovering from the crisis.

  14. I absolutely agree, that apology should be seen as the beginning, and not the end of a conflict situation or a flaw. And it definitely shouldn’t be taken as a means of escape to avoid taking full responsibility. Unfortunately the latter occurs more and more often nowadays. That is why the word “sorry” is being devaluated so fast.
    That is true, everybody makes mistakes – even the most successful companies or the most prominent leaders. And the proper, sincere apology should follow in such cases. But we, as an audience, should also have higher standards and be more exigent when accepting apology as this will stimulate a party at fault make an effort and come up with a REAL apology, that will signify a new turn. Only this type of apology can serve as a promise that the person or company who screwed up will change his/its behavior or malpractice.

  15. I agree that apologizing is the first step to remedying a situation is apologizing. I don’t think people react negatively to an apology, but rather when the person who makes the apology doesn’t take any actions to remedy the situation. Even when the mistake is not necessarily the top official’s fault it is their responsibility to find a solution to the situation. When it comes down to it, people want results not just an apology.

  16. Apologizing is regular in our society. It’s the natural response whenever something goes wrong. But there are some people that say, “sorry doesn’t cut it.” I think there’s a difference between apologizing and saying sorry and actually feeling bad about something that happened. For an apology to be genuine, the words “I’m sorry” need to be followed up with responsibility. There must be some action taken to fix the problem and show that your apology was more than just words. You must follow through with a process, much like the four steps you mentioned, in order for your apology to hold weight and actually mean something.

  17. I agree, we are living in age where people simply just apologize. Look, we all make mistakes some good and bad but the point of making mistakes is to learn from them and ensure that it never happens again. Apologizing is the first step to taking responsibility. In my opinion, if someone doesn’t apologize then they simply want to blame the situation on someone else and that is just not right. It may not fix the problem but it does ensure the public that a serious situation was never suppose to happen and that the organization will do everything to make sure that it never happens again.

  18. Yes, everyone makes mistakes. Is inevitable to hear an apology from people and corporations. However the apology should be followed by an action plan, to correct the mistakes that were made. Like the case study of JetBlue airways and the Valentine’s Day massacre of 2007. A severe winter storm in the New York metropolitan area left hundreds of passengers stranded in the terminal, and worse, in planes on the tarmac. JetBlue airways made detrimental operational mistakes that cost the company an estimated $20 million. Their CEO David Neeleman and his team were extremely good in strategizing how to apologize and fix the problem. They sprung into action after publically apologizing; Neeleman’s idea was to put in place a Jetblue Airways Customer Bill of Rights, that would compensate passengers every time the company failed to meet certain standards. This was a bold move because Jetblue essentially is putting its money in place of its mouth. This was a brilliant way to handle crisis and go above! They sprung into action to create a policy that would restore faith in their company and it worked.

  19. In one of my PR classes a few weeks ago we discussed an apology effort from Sunoco in an effort to recover from a plant explosion that caused a death and a neighborhood of damage. The company issued casual letters to the residents of the affected area accompanied by a coupon for free pizza from a local eatery. The point of the lesson was that the apology was insincere, insufficient and ineffective. I don’t believe that apologies in general are the problem. I think that the quality of the apologies is what makes them go so unappreciated. If the public figures mentioned above delivered sincere apologies that acknowledged the severity of the situation and future efforts to repair damage then the apologies may be better received. I think it’s the quality issue, not the quantity. There’s nothing wrong with an apology, as long as there is true emotion behind it.

  20. I think there is value to the public apology depending on the situation. The public likes their figures to apologize because they somehow feel an attachment to them. Even though it does not make the problem go away, it makes people think that the public figure has remorse for their deed.

  21. I think there are worse things we could be in than the age of apology. I clearly understand that apologies are sometimes just words, and that they could mean nothing at times, but in the face of a mistake, an honest apology is the most natural and best reaction. I, for one, am glad that the age of apology is more than just about “being polite.” The formula that Sorkin describes is one that has developed because, as inherently flawed humans, it’s the decent reaction to expect from someone in the face of a mistake. Maybe this is the age of apology, but I can tell you right now that there will never be an Age of No Mistakes.

    I really agree with the “moral audit” part of this blog post, and I think that’s a fair expectation in return for forgiveness.

  22. An apology is the first step that needs to be taken when dealing with a crisis. The public wants to see that the company or person knew that they did something wrong. After an apology is issued, whether it be sincere or not, the company or person must take action to fix the problem and make sure that it never happens again in the future. Only after the action taken is effective will the public begin to trust again.

  23. Actions speak louder than words. What you emphasize in class is extremely important. One cannot just apologize and be done with it, there are steps and actions that must be taken in order to prove they mean what they say. My theory is that you can apologize and take actions to fix it, but it doesn’t change what you did. “Forgive in forget,” is how some choose to approach the situation, I believe in “Forgive but never forget.” People mess up, it happens all the time; no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. We’ve heard it a million and one times before. The same goes for public figures — which is why I personally don’t take offense when someone “messes up.” But some do. One example are sports players who do drugs. You can apologize to to your fans and to the public, and stop using, but it doesn’t change what you did.

  24. While yes, it is true there is no substitute for a well- articulated apology, and apologizing is a key step in the healing process of one’s image, a simple apology means absolutely nothing if there is not some sort of action behind it. I believe it is almost insulting to the the public and to the people who you have wrong to say you are sorry to their faces but then make no effort to truly fix your mistakes, and this can make a bad image even worse. That is why I believe that if you have no plans on fixing the damage you have done, do not even bother apologizing; words can only do so much when there is no action behind them.

  25. Apologies are something that are often overlooked today. Saying “sorry” are just words and not always taken to heart or taken seriously. In Public Relations however, apologizing is extremely important. Saying “sorry” has helped many companies gain the trust of their clients and consumers back after an incident or mistake. Simply saying the word speaks volumes to the nature of a company or CEO. Admitting fault and taking responsibility is the key component of any crises situation.

  26. With the presence of technology today, our words travel further than we think they do. Countless companies and public figures have had to apologize at some point for a myriad of reasons such as a flaw in their business or for an offensive word they used. That being said, apologies are ubiquitous nowadays. It’s difficult for the public to find apologies sincere because they have heard them numerous times before. However, Sorkin’s advice that, “we must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something, but rather to get into a new mode of thought and behavior. It’s a beginning, not an end,” is the perfect way to begin. The American people are willing to forgive if the company or public figure is willing to put the work in. Forgiveness isn’t given out freely, it’s earned

  27. The art of the apology is one that has helped many organizations find their way back into the publics trust. It’s reflexive because there is no other way around a serious crisis then to sincerely apologize and make it seem that this is an unordinary circumstance that is noted. It is a skill every PR person should be able to teach, and with all eyes on you, teach it well. Relationships and trust are still highly regarded even with the advent of social media and other technological cultures that have caused relationships to become separated.

  28. Katherine Hammer | Reply

    I agree with Seidman. Nowadays people use an apology as a gut reaction that is not truly meant. A person may know what they did was wrong because of the reactions of the public, so they think the fastest way to fix it is to apologize. The public however is getting to the point where they need more than an apology. I agree that one has to address the problem, state how it will be fixed and then fix it. If the problem is not fixed in the right way, one’s reputation will be ruined. One has to prove that the mistake that was made will never happen again. In order for that to happen, the problem has to be fully addressed and changes must be made to satisfy to the public.

  29. A successful and correctly approached apology can help a situation go from bad to good. The person giving the apology actually has to mean what they’re saying not just with words, but with emotions and they’re not just giving the apology because it’s the right thing to do. Especially with politicians, athletes, actors don’t believe what they did was considered wrong and will probably continue what they did wrong and are only giving the apology to fix their image at that particular moment. The apology is good for the start, but actions speak louder than words. Remember once you ruin your image with your words it is hard and takes time to gain back a positive image.

  30. Christine Wallen | Reply

    Siedman is right. When you make a mistake an apology should follow. However, when most public figures apologize today, I feel most of them aren’t genuine. I think apologies are losing their “magic touch” because we here them so often for the smallest things. Someone pointed out that in this modern age with cameras and technology it’s hard to not say or do something without getting caught. I think that PR professional need to know the rules of a good apology and take steps to get the public to look at their client in a positive or new light.

  31. Alexandria Alicea | Reply

    It is only natural for for people in the public eye to make a mistake. As its repeatedly pointed out, no matter the status of the person everyone is still human. It is inevitable for error to occur. The difference is absolutely in the attitude of the person and genuine desire of who they aspire to be. A public feature that perfectly fits this example, Mr. Kanye West. Mr. West is constantly in a negative media light and forever saying the wrong things. The difference between Kanye and most public figures is that he does not live in the error of apology. In fact, Kanye rarely ever apologizes for his outbursts or media mishaps; he fully embraces the man he is and continues to grow from his mistakes. Although the man he portrays to the media may be an entirely different one from his personal life, he at least understands that the choices he makes ultimately affects all. It is so easy for a figure to “apologize” and “make things right” instead of owning up to their mistakes realizing that this is potentially the person they are becoming.

  32. Apologizing for a mistake is the ultimate rule for the PR world. Of course a person must recognize the problem and say sorry. As the audience we like to see the person apologize for something they have done wrong. However, they need to prove their worthiness to us and change into a better person. We have seen many apologizes on television or in the newspaper. But, it’s time for those people to take action and prove they are sorry. Actions speak louder than words!!!!

  33. Since childhood, it is drilled into our heads if you do something wrong you simply apologize. Saying “sorry” may not be the best way to handle a situation or a crisis, but it is a start. I think it’s important for people to state publicly that they apologize during a crisis. The examples given above in the blog are all ethically wrong, but if there was no apology the actions that follow wouldn’t feel sincere. I think it’s important to fix the damage, like you mentioned. It’s important to own up, say you’re sorry, and acknowledge that you made a mistake.

  34. Apologies are important when someone, particularly a world leader or member of pop culture, has screwed up. But, as this post points out, it’s much more important to follow up the apology with noticeable behavior that ensures an apology won’t ever be needed again.

    I think it’s also important to note that in today’s day and age where *everyone* has a camera or a videocamera on their phones in their pockets, it’s a lot easier to catch someone saying something they shouldn’t, or doing something questionable. I think the number of apologies have increased over the years because celebrities and politicians are literally always being watched, and every and any word they say can be sent in to the tabloids, picked apart, and misconstrued. As much as an apology and changed behavior might be warranted, I think people need to really think if these situations matter that much, and be a little more gracious, since we’ve all said and done things that we wish we hadn’t. For example, will LeBron James calling something “retarded” will even matter one month form now, and will it really changes the lives of developmentally challenged people for the better? My vote, is that it won’t, and it doesn’t. Things like Target’s breach, however, *do* require a huge apology and changed policies, since they put thousands of people and their finances at risk.

  35. In a public relations crisis I believe it is crucial to form a public apology in the right situation. If there is a slight controversy over something small (relating back to the Coke commercial we spoke of in class) the apology may not be necessary. But when a public figure like a politician makes a public mistake, it is then vital to fix the problem and make a statement to those affected. Being a public figure means rendering a positive image at all times. Acting in an inappropriate way has a large impact on how our society respects that person and how they will perceive their image in the future. Public apologies also can make a public figure appear to be relatable in saying that even he or she struggles in their day-to-day life. Apologies may sometimes seem unnecessary or fake but are important to maintain a positive public image.

  36. It is always polite to apologize but hearing it too many times makes it less sincere. If Andrew Ross Sorkin was right about “The age of apology is clearly upon us” then famous figures such as Leaders should have a new approach or another expression of regret. After reading Sorkin’s article ” Too Many Sorry Excuses for Apology” I’m afraid the “I’m sorry” expression will be used very loosely and no one would care and take responsibility for their failure.

  37. Yes Siedman is right. In a PR crisis, public figures need to publicly apologize and live up to their wrong doing, but “I’m sorry” is becoming like word vomit for me. Some people say it just to say it and don’t do anything to make sure that whatever it is they are sorry for never happens again. The “I’m sorry” line can’t work for the moment, it has to be long term. Why are you really sorry? Some people don’t really look deep into why they are apologizing and they should. I just had a situation with the use of the words “I’m sorry” and the person still acts rude and ungrateful and is not trying to work on herself. I can tell when an apology is genuine, but when it is said just to be said, I don’t accept.

  38. Seidman is correct. Public apologies are still indeed necessary, but it is becoming a bit more robotic versus genuine. Yes apologize, but also take the necessary actions to make sure it will never happen again. A lot of public figures believe that apologizing means everything is well and forgotten. It’s really just words and never enough.

  39. Siedman really kind of hit the nail on the head. A apology is obviously integral to acknowledging a crisis. However, it must be believed to be genuine and part of that is showing an actual commitment to solving the problem. If the basic “I’m sorry” becomes overused, it will create a “cry wolf” situation where the public is no longer convinced by a simple apology. A perfect example is former BP CEO Tony Hayward, whose televised apology for his seemingly insensitive remarks was parodied by South with a series of scenes depicting Hayward repeating the “I’m sorry” line.

  40. I believe that to overcome a problem it is vital to apologize, genuinely, to the public after you have caused a problem or acted in an inappropriate manner. I think that apologizes have become scripted but the public can always tell and real apologize from one that is used as a quick fix. It is important to be genuine in everything you do as a person and as a leader if you want to viewed in a positive light by the public

  41. In order to “humanize” the situation, it is always nice to hear a sincere apology. Most people think that big CEO’s are only into their business and nothing else; so it’s nice to see them humanize themselves and make everyone realize that mistakes do happen. Communication is always key. There should always be an open medium where people can vent their troubles and feedback should always be returned. Creating a solution to the problem is a great way in order to reassure that the issue will be resolved and somewhat made up for.

  42. I really like Seidman’s remark, “We must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something, but rather to get into a new mode of thought and behavior. It’s a beginning, not an end.” I believe the apology is just the part of the process that allows people to look for what you will do and how you will go about changing the problem that was created. You can compare this process to a students process of writing a school paper. The apology is just the introduction before the thesis. The thesis, connected to the introduction, is showing people that you will make a change. The specifics and plans of how you will fix the problem, is the actual body of the paper with careful research backing your thesis. It’s never justifiable to hand in a research paper with only an introduction.

  43. Avalon Bohunicky | Reply

    It seems that in our society today, many famous figures, such as politicians, athletes and actors, are frequently apologizing for offensive comments that they made. It is important for people in the public eye to know their boundaries when it comes to what they say and how they say it. This way, the person or organization’s public relations team does not have to scramble to set up a public apology and develop a plan of action to fix the problem. The apology must be sincere, for it will be evident if it is not. The problem caused by the misspeaking must also be taken care of in order to attempt to gain back the respect of the public. It is understandable that a famous figure can misspeak and say the wrong thing, but it is their responsibility to not be offensive and apologize if they came off that way.

  44. In a public relations crisis, a successful apology can turn a dismal circumstance into and winning situation. However, for an apology to work, it must be well timed and perceived by the public as a genuine and honest plea for forgiveness. If it is too shallow, too late, or appears to be too tactically motivated by self-interest, then it can be a failure for the individual or the organization’s reputation.
    Public apologies matter because they offer explanations, show admission to a mistake, and as Seidman stated, it represents a transition into “a new mode of thought and behavior.” When leaders apologize publicly, they acknowledge a wrongdoing and provide assurance that the offense won’t be repeated. Leaders and the public engage in the communication in order to move on from the past to the future, and begin the course to correction that mistakes and wrongdoing require.

  45. The first step to recovering from any incident is apologizing, and it must be done in a publicly sincere manner. Often times it isn’t the fault of the CEO when an issue arises, but it is their job to represent the company, and apologize for the issue at hand. It also is not enough to just apologize, I agree that it is important to follow up with creating a solution to the problem.

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