Public Apologies and the Art of Keeping It Real

People make mistakes. Leaders make mistakes. It is to be expected. After all, we are only human. But why is it that so many times we hear public apologies, and yet something feels off? It just does not seem right. We don’t believe them. 

We know from the Edelman Trust Barometer that we live in a society where we have lost trust in all of our institutions and their respective leaders. As a result, it makes it that much harder to convince people that we are sorry when trust was non-existent to begin with. 

Perhaps it is also the fact that apologizing is the art of showing our emotion, empathy and convictions. That sounds quite simple to do, doesn’t it? However, so many leaders and public figures are failing at making their apologies come across as truthful and sincere. Instead, more often than not, they want to turn down the volume or quickly change the channel. 

Here are some observations I’ve made watching dozens of public apologies, including one or two that were best-in-class: 

  1. Timing matters: React quickly if an apology is necessary; people may forgive you within 24 hours. However, if delayed by a week, the apology becomes irrelevant and can be taken as an insult. 

  1. Avoid the trap words: ‘Honestly’, ‘let me tell you the truth’, ‘I am sorry, BUT’, ‘it’s because’, etc. 

  1. Beyond words: We all know that body language trumps words. So, watch out for the nervous grin, the eyes that look down instead of looking straight at the audience, the fidgeting. Stay tall and look forward, take a deep breath and do not speak too fast. 

  1.  Empathy: To convey your empathy towards those impacted, explain what you did that was wrong and relate it to how it probably made people feel so they can see that you understand the impact of your mistake.  

  1. Use your own words: There is nothing wrong with making sure that your message will be heard correctly and that it is complete and well-structured. A communication specialist can be of great value; however, the first draft should be done 100% by you. Great leaders know how to put their thoughts on paper, and by doing so, they are keeping it real (and yes, the lawyer can validate that there is no liability issue after you have drafted the apology). 

  1. Prioritize: Address yourself to the specific audience(s) that should be impacted and prioritize them in your communication (a hint, it is often the employees). 

  1. Do not ask for forgiveness, it’s too early for that. 

  1. Keep it short: If you are apologizing for 10 minutes, you owe an apology just for that! Keep it short and to the point.   

  1. Validate: Have a sample of your stakeholders listen to your apology: if it does not sound good enough to them, it needs to be reworked based on their feedback. 

  1. Make a commitment that you can honour: if you can, explain how you will course-correct and make sure you follow through. 

It is somewhat easy to find apologies that went terribly wrong. For example, world-renowned chef Mario Batali apologized in a written statement about allegations of sexual misconduct. The first part of his apology felt scripted, but aside from that, the words were clean, simple and the length of the apology was acceptable. He explained why he was sorry and apologized to specific groups of individuals that he wanted to address. But then, for some reason, Mr. Batali added a “P.S.” along with a link to a cinnamon bun recipe! That is what I call a “PR disaster”. And, in fact, he got publicly shamed for turning what appeared to be an honest apology into a farce. 

Of course, some people do get it right. The best example I found of a public apology is by Maple Leaf Foods in 2008. After a listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people, the CEO, Michael McCain, apologized and fully acknowledged the company’s fault. The company also organized a product recall that is estimated to have cost up to 20 million dollars, adding to the lawsuits’ total charges. Maple Leaf Foods got back to profitability the following year, helped in large part by the excellent management of the crisis. 

From government leaders to CEOs, it is almost certain that there will be bad judgment calls made and an apology will be necessary. I believe that society understands that the role of leaders is a difficult one and that there may be bumps in the road. However, it is time that leaders remember who they are talking to when they need to apologize, that they embrace a tone that is more human, more natural, more authentic. And most importantly, remember that what the world is looking for now, are leaders that they can connect with, that they can share values with and that show emotion and vulnerability when necessary.