The (Not So) Fine Art of Public Apology

Photo courtesy Oprah.com​I don’t know about you but boy have I been apologized to a lot lately.

The latest obviously came last night when Lance Armstrong admitted what most have known for a long time and apologized for single-handedly destroying a sport and the majority of the people involved in it.

It got me thinking of who’s really to blame for all these public apologies. I didn’t have to look far.

The public relations industry has pretty much nailed the formula for the perfect public apology.

It is (mistake) + (quick public apology) + (taking of responsibility) + (contrition) = (well, we’ll get to what it equals in a second).

We’ve also trained the media to become judges of the art. Not only does the media now report on the apology itself, it knows the steps to the formula and reports on the steps that are missed and weighs in on the effectiveness of the apology. It now even publically states whether it will accept the apology or not (see ESPN’s Rick Reilly).

My thoughts then turned to “what if we do to the world of public apologies the thing we do to just about anything these days and brand them for shorthand purposes?” Just think….

“The Woods” — Cheat on your wife, get hit in the head with a golf club, issue tightly-controlled, televised public apology then disappear for a while in rehab.

“The Musburger” — Play the dirty-old-man card on the highest-rated college football game in recent history then hide behind a written statement from your boss.

“The Te’o” — Claim you’re the victim of an internet fraud, convince the leadership of perhaps the number one brand of all of sports to throw its public belief behind you, then go into semi-hiding.

“The Penn State” — Hide behind the squeaky-clean reputation of your “institution” for years, then cut all ties and remove all signs after things get too difficult to defend.

“The Armstrong” — Spend years lying and attacking others who challenge those lies and decide to tell the truth and apologize to a television host whose cable network desperately needs the ratings.

You can see where I’m going here.

What we forget is that the PR public apology formula never will, and is not designed to, equal total forgiveness. It is meant to mitigate only a certain percentage of the damage.

I still know people who won’t buy gas at BP or Exxon stations, or for whom Tylenol conjures up scary images no matter how many apologies or how much money is spent in their wake.

I was reminded of that this week as I watched the Today Show and saw Pete Rose and his fiancée interviewed by Matt Lauer (yes, they were hawking their new reality show of course). Click here to watch interview.

After spending five minutes talking about the show and his fall from grace, Rose quickly reached behind him and shoved a signed baseball in Lauer’s face.

He then awkwardly joked with Matt that “you get two of mine, you get one Derek Jeter.”

And that’s the ultimate price of every Charlie’s hustle.

Jon Newman

In 2002 Jon cofounded The Hodges Partnership and has helped to grow it into one of the country’s largest public relations firms (based on O’Dwyer’s annual rankings). Jon has taught communications as an adjunct professor at VCU, speaks regularly at conferences and meetings and blogs and tweets about public relations and marketing issues.

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