A guide for companies – and the rest of us
Kevin Spacey recently turned to Twitter in a response to accusations made by fellow actor Anthony Rapp. Many have criticized his statement for falling seriously short of being a sincere apology. The exchange has made others come forward with stories of their own sending the award-winning actor’s career into free fall.
Whether Mr. Spacey had it coming, public shaming has gotten out of hand, or the vote is still out until the innocent is proven guilty – I don’t know. Much has already been said and written about the case and perhaps all three points are true at the same time.
It is a very relevant story – and to me it is also highly interesting professionally. It is no coincidence that many refer to the words “I’m sorry” as among the hardest to utter, and many a pop song has dealt with the theme almost ad nauseam. The public apology and the subsequent public scrutiny of its success and appropriateness is a well-known journalist discipline. As an advisor, I am often involved in crisis management – and very often clients realize they need to issue an apology. Perhaps contrary to popular perception, most of them actually realize this quite quickly. But how do you apologize? What is the best way?
Public apologies are often crafted to strike a careful balance between conflicting concerns. Sometimes the balance is the right one – often it is not.
The thousand voices
It is a difficult job because the problem is rarely simple. Admitting fault typically involves an amalgam of psychological issues (shame), legal issues (acceptance of liability), and financial issues (long term impact to reputation). Consequently, many voices inside a company or organization can pull in different directions. For anyone who has witnessed this process, it becomes clear that public apologies are often crafted to strike a careful balance between such conflicting concerns. Sometimes the balance is the right one – often it is not. We all harbor a strong need to tell “our side of the story”. When faced with a chorus of critics, defensive mechanisms set in and there is a risk of seeing the world through the martyr’s prism.
However, science can help. Researchers at the Ohio State University have recently dissected the structure of the effective apology and distilled some of its components. The more components included, the more effective the apology. According to their studies, it is important to:
- Express regretand repent – this is fundamental to any apology and most manage to convey this to some degree. Occasionally though, wordsmithing gets out of hand and statements become so creative that they completely omit the word “sorry”. When Donald Trump apologized during the presidential campaign for his infamous remarks on women made in 2006, he did not use the word. Spacey did, but not very introspectively saying “I’m sorry for the feelings he describes…”.
- Acknowledge your responsibility- by focusing his apology on the feelings of Rapp, Spacey shifted focus away from himself. Bad idea, according to science, because a key part of apologizing is taking responsibility for what has happened. This is a bit harder – not only do you have to say you are sorry, but also that it is your fault.
- Explain what went wrong– the good apology needs to be specific. Why are you sorry? Many are tempted to skip this step entirely being euphemistic about the problem or pointing to the actions of others like “allegations have been made” or “my actions have been called into question” followed by “I’m sorry” or “I apologize”. But if you stay on your own turf, admit mistakes, and put them in your own words instead of just referencing them, it makes for a stronger apology. When explaining, it is tempting to be vague, try to explain away things, shift or share blame, trivialize, or reduce an issue into only a subset of the accusations. Sometimes it is wise to add relevant context in an apology, but make sure you (or someone you trust) play the devil’s advocate, as it is very easy to get this part of the apology dead wrong.
- Offer repair– what will you do to make things better? This is not effective on its own, but if the other components are included, offering action is a good idea. But consider it carefully – it needs to be proportionate, timely, and wholehearted. Actions that involve the victim or injured parties are more effective than actions that only involve yourself. Spacey ends his statement saying he plans to start “examining my own behavior”. Always a good idea, but hardly of much use to anyone else. At least he did not do a full-Tony Hayward, the BP CEO, who after the 2010 oil spill disaster said “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back”.
- Ask for forgiveness– according to the study, this is the component that has the least impact. Nonetheless it is still relevant to consider. It is a rather bold request that many would probably not be comfortable with. I think both the issue, the context, and the culture should be considered – but no doubt if the appeal is sincere, it can be very powerful. You can ask for it – but never presume it.
Lessons for the rest of us
What went wrong for Spacey? Short answer: everything. He found himself in quite the catch-22 situation, his statement does not really contain any of the elements of an effective apology, and as such the massive criticism it has spurred should not come as a surprise. He chose the occasion to come out as gay – which earned him criticism for trying to deflect the issue. Had he remained in the closet, his statement would have been even more disingenuous. Could a better apology have changed reactions? Saved his career? Impossible to say, but it could have made things a lot better. He is certainly not the only one to boggle the public apology. From Trump to Lance Armstrong, from Volkswagen to Uber – we do not have to go back far in history to find numerous examples.
What about the good examples? Well, we probably remember fewer of them because they have been more successful at putting the matter to rest. But when tennis star Maria Sharapova failed a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open, she chose a different approach than so many caught in the doping trap before her. Rather than concocting sensational stories about lingering stem cells from an unborn, vanished twin, or blaming it on a bad beef, she broke the story herself, faced the matter head on, and apologized to her fans. She was still criticized. Long-time sponsors like Nike and Porche suspended their huge and long-term sponsorships, but when Sharapova resumed her career earlier this year, most of them were back.
What can the rest of us learn from these examples?
I think there are five important lessons that most companies, politicians, or celebrities should heed when trying to master the difficult art of the public apology:
- Realize the trouble you are in– fully understanding the situation is crucial in responding adequately. A key question to ask is: is this a matter of competence or trust? We are far faster to forgive people for incompetence than we are at exonerating a lack of integrity. Fools we forgive, but we crucify the creep – so act accordingly.
- Understand the other perspective– your apology will be received through a different lens than your own. The better you comprehend how you are perceived by the public and what the world looks like through the eyes of your critics, the better you can avoid being misunderstood – and the bigger your chance of resisting the urge to make the apology too much about you.
- Mean what you say– not only your words but also your motives for apologizing will be scrutinized. Your omissions, your body language, the tone of your voice - any insincerity will be exposed. Kevin Spacey is an actor, a director, a producer, and a screen-writer – he was communicating through a written statement on Twitter. If anybody should be able to fake it, it would be him. But you just can’t. So, never say anything you do not mean. If you are a CEO or a celebrity, chances are someone else will advise you, perhaps even draft your statement. Be sure to check with your gut and your own moral compass if their words should truly become yours.
- No half-measures– the Ohio State University study shows how including more components in an apology makes it more effective. When an apology does not work or backfires it is often because it is inadequate, too standard, or “too easy”. The worst scenario is the bad drip – new revelations keep coming in and the apology needs continual annexing. When you apologize, you only get one shot – so in the words of Eminem “you better never let it go”.
- Actions speak louder than words– rarely will the apology by itself solve your problems. It can be the start of a journey back to respectability, but saying sorry is only the first step. Be sincere in your apology, and before you make it, consider carefully how you are going to follow up. Make no demands or presumptions of forgiveness, but focus on what you will do going forward.
Another option of course is to never get yourself into the kind of trouble that will warrant an apology. Just know that things don’t always go as planned.
 Roy J. Lewicki, Beth Polin, and Robert B. Lount Jr. (2016): An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies. Negotiation and Conﬂict Management Research, Volume 9, Number 2, Pages 177–196.