From a public relations perspective, public apologies are fascinating. They’re to be found everywhere and the news media can’t seem to get enough of these dramatic statements.
If we unpack the public apology as a concept, we can discern three central parts:
- the apology (“I apologise”),
- the expression of regret (“I’m sorry”) and
- the explanation (“this is why”).
An apology is by nature an ambiguous statement; it ranges from submissive remorse all the way up to a chevaleresk trope of humbly expressing that the outcome was all that one could muster — despite best efforts.
This ambiguity is why it’s never enough to just say, “I apologise”.
The public typically won’t take anyone’s apology into consideration until they understand why someone did what they did — and how they feel about having done it. And in my experience as a PR professional, this is where most public apologies starts to break down.
Many public apologies results in the worst kind of public apologies, non-apologies:
“I’m sorry that you feel this way.”
“I’m sorry that you don’t appreciate the outcome.”
“I’m sorry that I failed to make myself clear.“
Deflective apologies is another form of non-apology where you outright blame someone else for your mistakes:
“I’m sorry that I was misinformed or took bad advice.”
“I’m sorry that they failed to do what I was promised.”
Sometimes, non-apologies take a dark turn. Pathological apologies is, somewhat surprisingly, not all that uncommon:
“I’m sorry because I got caught.”
“I’m sorry that I’m not ‘perfect’ by your standards.”
Demonstrating lingering aggression (and no actual remorse) is a clear sign that the apology is an outright lie.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the moral apology. The accused acknowledges the negative outcome, but he or she won’t accept any moral responsibility:
“I’m sorry, I only did what I thought was right at the time.”
“I’m sorry; in hindsight, that was a bad decision on my part.”
Moral apologies aren’t inherently bad like non-apologies, deflective apologies, and pathological apologies, but their effectiveness will depend greatly on whether or not the audience accepts them being true based on the circumstances.
A close relative to moral apologies are defeatist apologies:
“I’m sorry that I failed in my attempt.”
“I’m sorry that this didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.”
“I’m sorry, if I knew things would turn out this way, I would’ve chosen differently.”
Defeatist apologies will only work if the audience accepts that the cause was just and that the potential value of learning from a mistake is substantial.
Then we also have character apologies. these apologies appeal to the notion that we all make mistakes from time to time — and perhaps some more than others:
“I’m sorry, I was stupid.”
“I’m sorry, I was under the influence or temporarily confused.”
“I’m sorry, I was emotional and I acted out.”
“I’m sorry — I’m sick and I need help.”
“I’m sorry — I was weak.”
Circumstantial apologies can be efficient to to direct the focus towards a specific situation:
“I’m sorry that I was taken by surprise and caught off-guard.”
“I’m sorry that I lacked the skills to manage that particular situation.”
“I misunderstood or misread the situation.”
“I’m sorry that I wasn’t better prepared.”
Stoic apologies are common mainly in business contexts:
“I’m sorry and I take full responsibility for my actions.”
“I’m sorry; I acknowledge the consequences and will accept proper punishment.”
These types of apologies can be powerful and yet simple, however, their intention can be seen as misconstrued martyrdom. And is there any real regret?
Transactional apologies can be efficient if the accuser is interested in negotiating compensation, but it can also be perceived as a tactic for buying yourself free from any moral responsibility:
“I’m sorry and I’ll make it up to you.”
“I’m sorry and we have accepted to pay damages to all those who have been affected.”
Most of us, when encountering any of the above examples, will be naturally suspicious. Is it an honest apology and an apology that fits the “crime”? You might wonder, what would be the formula for a perfect apology? Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a universal public apology, only different types of apologies:
- deflective apologies,
- pathological apologies,
- moral apologies,
- defeatist apologies,
- character apologies,
- circumstantial apologies,
- stoic apologies, and
- transactional apologies.
Apart from an honest delivery, this is what we must be understood about the strategic use of public apologies as a PR tool:
Public apologies are not methods to be used to obtain forgiveness or to prevent the loss of public trust. If you’re at fault, those damages have already been done and must be dealt with long-term. A public apology is a tool to allow the narrative to move into the next phase sooner rather than later — whatever that phase might hold in store for the wrongdoer.
About the Author
This article was written by Jerry Silfwer, an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Based in Stockholm, Sweden, you can read more of his work at DoctorSpin.