The PR BlogPublic RelationsReputation & CrisisWhen a Public Apology is Warranted—and When It's Not

When a Public Apology is Warranted—and When It’s Not

Public apologies are about moving the process forward—not absolution.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

A public apology is not about forgiveness.

This article will give you an overview of different types of public apologies. I’ll also explore why a public apology has little to do with finding forgiveness.

I’m a senior public relations advisor who has advised many brands in peril. The key to getting a public apology is thoroughly understanding the situation.

Here we go:

Components of a Public Apology

The Public Apology

A public apology is, by nature, an ambiguous statement; it ranges from submissive remorse to a chevalier’s trope of humbly expressing that the outcome was all that one could muster—despite best efforts.

And the news media can’t enough of these dramatic statements.

The audience won’t consider anyone’s public apology until they understand why someone did what they did—and how they feel about doing it. This ambiguity is why it’s never enough to say, “I apologise.”

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”).

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a universal public apology, only different types of apologies:

  • non-apologies,
  • deflective apologies,
  • pathological apologies,
  • moral apologies,
  • defeatist apologies,
  • character apologies,
  • circumstantial apologies,
  • stoic apologies, and
  • transactional apologies.

From a public relations perspective, public apologies are challenging. They must be crafted carefully to have the intended effect.

Read also: When a Public Apology is Warranted—and When It’s Not

Types of Public Apologies

Non-Apologies

Many public apologies result in perhaps 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

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 they failed to do what they promised me.”

Pathological Apologies

Sometimes, non-apologies take a dark turn. Demonstrating lingering aggression (and no actual remorse) indicates that the apology is an outright lie.

Pathological apologies are, somewhat surprisingly, not all that uncommon:

“I’m sorry because I got caught.”
“I’m sorry I’m not ‘perfect’ by your standards.”

Moral Apologies

On the other side of the spectrum, we have a moral apology.

Moral apologies aren’t inherently wrong like non-apologies, deflective apologies, and pathological apologies. Their effectiveness will depend on whether or not the audience accepts them as being true based on the circumstances.

The accused acknowledges the negative outcome but without accepting any moral responsibility:

“I’m sorry, but I only did what I thought was right at the time.”
“I’m sorry; in hindsight, that was a bad decision on my part.”

Defeatist Apologies

Some 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.

A close relative to moral apologies is 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, but if I knew things would turn out this way, I would’ve chosen differently.”

Character Apologies

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 acted out.”
“I’m sorry — I’m sick and need help.”
“I’m sorry — I was weak.”

Circumstantial Apologies

Circumstantial apologies can be efficient in directing the focus towards a specific situation:

“I’m sorry that someone surprised me and caught me off-guard.”
“I’m sorry I lacked the skills to manage that situation.”
“I misunderstood or misread the situation.”
“I’m sorry that I wasn’t better prepared.”

Stoic Apologies

Stoic apologies are standard in business contexts. They can be powerful yet simple, but some might interpret their intention as misconstrued martyrdom.

Is there any honest regret?

“I’m sorry and take full responsibility for my actions.”
“I’m sorry, but I acknowledge the consequences and will accept proper punishment.”

Transactional Apologies

Transactional apologies can be efficient if the accuser is interested in negotiating compensation or used as a tactic by the accused to appeal to the accuser’s greed:

“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.”

Pushing the Process Forward

Most of us will be naturally suspicious when encountering the above examples.

Is it an honest apology?
Is it an apology that fits the “crime”?

Apart from an honest delivery, this is what we must understand about the strategic use of public apologies as a PR tool:

Public apologies are not a method to obtain forgiveness or prevent loss of public trust. Forgiveness and trust must be earned long-term and separately.

A public apology is a tool to allow the narrative to move into the next stage sooner rather than later—whatever that stage might hold in store for the wrongdoer.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

PR Resource: The High Road Tonality

The High Road Tonality

An organisation is the total sum of all its coworkers. Imagine taking the most mature traits from each coworker and combining them into one voice — the high road tonality.

  • Openness. A mature organisation understands that everyone must be allowed to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • Fairness. A mature organisation will see (and respect) both sides of a divisive argument.
  • Strength. A mature organisation is confident in its chosen strategies and acquired abilities, not because they’re perfect, but because they are grounded.
  • Wisdom. A mature organisation will take their time to explain complex topics without condescendence.
  • Humility. A mature organisation understands that no one can have everything completely figured out and that we all have learning and growing to do.

Read also: The High Road Tonality: Don’t Be Pushed Around

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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