The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyCrisis CommunicationsWhen 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: @jerrysilfwer

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 get 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.”

Public apo­lo­gies func­tion as ritu­al­ist­ic pub­lic pun­ish­ment and humi­li­ation, rather than for­give­ness, to enforce eth­ic­al stand­ards for pub­lic speech.”
Source: Rhetoric Society Quarterly 1Ellwanger, A. (2012). Apology as Metanoic Performance: Punitive Rhetoric and Public Speech. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42, 307 – 329. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​2​7​7​3​9​4​5​.​2​0​1​2​.​7​0​4​118

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.

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

💡 Subscribe and get a free ebook on how to get bet­ter PR ideas.

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.


Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

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 condescending.
  • Humility. A mature organ­isa­tion under­stands that no one can have everything com­pletely figured out and that we all have learn­ing and grow­ing to do.

Learn more: The High Road Tonality: Don’t Be Pushed Around

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Ellwanger, A. (2012). Apology as Metanoic Performance: Punitive Rhetoric and Public Speech. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42, 307 – 329. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​2​7​7​3​9​4​5​.​2​0​1​2​.​7​0​4​118
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

The cover photo has

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