The Public Apology

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

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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A pub­lic apo­logy is not about forgiveness.

I’m a seni­or pub­lic rela­tions advisor who has advised sev­er­al brands in per­il. This art­icle will give you an over­view of dif­fer­ent types of pub­lic apo­lo­gies and explore why a pub­lic apo­logy has little to do with absolution.

Here we go:

The Public Apology

The public apology.
The pub­lic apology.
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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.

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

Anatomy of an Apology

The audi­ence will not 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 say­ing, “I apo­lo­gise” is nev­er enough — you must also express regret and explain yourself.

  • The apo­logy. (“I apologise.”)
  • The regret. (“I’m sorry.”)
  • The explan­a­tion. (“This is why.”)

Types of Public Apologies

There are sev­er­al dif­fer­ent types of apo­lo­gies to avoid. Unfortunately, as far as pub­lic apo­lo­gies go, these types of pub­lic apo­lo­gies are widely used — often with dev­ast­at­ing PR consequences.

  • The non-apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry you feel this way.”)
  • The deflect­ive apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry I was mis­in­formed or took bad advice.”)
  • The patho­lo­gic­al apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry I got caught.”)
  • The grand­stand­ing apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry, but I acted accord­ing to my mor­al convictions.”)
  • The defeat­ist apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry this didn’t work out how it was sup­posed to.”)
  • The char­ac­ter apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry — I’m unwell and need help.”)
  • The cir­cum­stan­tial apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry I wasn’t bet­ter prepared.”)
  • The trans­ac­tion­al apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry, but I have since paid my dues.”)

From a PR per­spect­ive, I recom­mend only one type of apology:

  • The Stoic apo­logy. (“I apo­lo­gise, and I’m sorry — I did wrong, and I take full respons­ib­il­ity for my actions.”)

Moving Into the Next Stage

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

Public apo­lo­gies are not a meth­od of obtain­ing abso­lu­tion or mit­ig­at­ing the loss of pub­lic trust. Forgiveness and trust must be earned sep­ar­ately and in the long term.

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

Learn more: The Public Apology

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Media Spokesperson Training

Media spokesperson training.
Media spokes­per­son training.
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Media Spokesperson Training

I love coach­ing media spokespeople. Here’s how to approach your very first media train­ing as a media train­er yourself:

  • Train for an actu­al appear­ance. General media train­ing is inef­fi­cient. There should be an actu­al media appear­ance com­ing up. The upcom­ing media appear­ance will sharpen our prac­tice ses­sions. The real­ity of the situ­ation will make a huge difference.
  • Roll the cam­era already. When we have a rough idea of what the spokes­per­son should say, I don’t both­er about ton­al­ity, gim­micks, per­so­nas, choice of clothes, etc. Instead, I start the video cam­era. Go! Since there is little pre­par­a­tion, we can quickly identi­fy the problems.
  • Allow for self-cor­rec­tion. After each attempt, I play the video back. As we watch the foot­age, I ask the per­son in train­ing what they think. Sometimes, there’s nervous laughter. Sometimes, there’s uncom­fort­able squirm­ing. Other times, the mood gets ser­i­ous. But without me hav­ing to give any notes what­so­ever, the spokes­per­son imme­di­ately self-cor­rects. After exper­i­en­cing a cata­logue of emo­tions from watch­ing one­self deliv­er cor­por­ate cringe unpre­pared, the spokes­per­son soon wants to try again. We will keep doing this until the spokes­per­son is “done” and ready for care­ful input from the media trainer.
  • Use Socratic ques­tion­ing. Instead of giv­ing notes, I prac­tice Socratic ques­tion­ing. “Did you like or dis­like the way you delivered the mes­sage? How did it feel when you changed your approach?” These types of ques­tions can admit­tedly be annoy­ing, but the spokes­per­son is often too engaged in their per­form­ance to both­er about how I behave. Some might seek my approv­al dur­ing the pro­cess, but it’s easy to deflect and redir­ect their ques­tions back at them. “What parts did you like? What parts do you want to change?” 
  • Explain the pro­cess at the end. When we’re near­ing the end of the train­ing ses­sion, either by sheer fatigue or schedul­ing con­straints, some spokes­per­sons start to think about my role in all of this. “Why is Jerry not giv­ing, only ask­ing me ques­tions instead of giv­ing feed­back? Why is Jerry not telling me what to do — or what not to do?” Leaders want to know that they’re get­ting their money’s worth. So, I typ­ic­ally end the first train­ing ses­sion by explain­ing that media train­ing should allow the media spokes­per­son to ”excav­ate” their best media per­sona. It’s always some­where, but they must pull it out themselves. 

Learn more: Media Spokesperson Training: Get Your Message Across

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Classic Media Training Advice

Classic media training advice.
Classic media train­ing advice.
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Classic Media Training Advice

Speaking with a report­er while adher­ing to best prac­tices in media train­ing is straight­for­ward in the­ory but dif­fi­cult in real-life situations.

Here is some clas­sic media train­ing advice:

  • Never spec­u­late. Anything you say before a report­er could be recor­ded and used against you later. Therefore, avoid spec­u­lat­ing since you might be proven wrong, or your guesses could be con­veyed as faulty state­ments of facts to dis­cred­it you later.
  • Stay on mes­sage. Develop 3 – 4 key points you want to con­vey and con­sist­ently steer the con­ver­sa­tion back to those mes­sages. This helps ensure that your core mes­sages are com­mu­nic­ated clearly and fre­quently. 2Silfwer, J. (2024, May 2). The Core Message. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​r​e​-​m​e​s​s​a​ge/
  • Be pre­pared. Before any media inter­ac­tion, famil­i­ar­ise your­self with the journ­al­ist, their recent work, and the media out­let’s audi­ence. Preparation will help you tail­or your mes­sages and anti­cip­ate poten­tial ques­tions. 3Silfwer, J. (2022, June 28). Media Spokesperson Training: Get Your Message Across. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​m​e​d​i​a​-​s​p​o​k​e​s​p​e​r​s​on/
  • Avoid jar­gon. Speak in plain lan­guage to ensure your audi­ence under­stands your mes­sage. Industry-spe­cif­ic terms can con­fuse listen­ers and dilute the impact of your mes­sage. 4Silfwer, J. (2015, October 9). The Platitude Sickness: The Trash of Corporate Writing. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​l​a​t​i​t​u​d​e​-​s​i​c​k​n​e​ss/
  • Be con­cise. Offer brief, clear responses to avoid mis­in­ter­pret­a­tion. Long, com­plic­ated answers can lead to snip­pets being taken out of context.
  • Use bridging tech­niques. If asked a dif­fi­cult or off-top­ic ques­tion, use bridging phrases like “What’s import­ant to remem­ber is…” to trans­ition back to your key messages.
  • Never lie. Always tell the truth. If you don’t know the answer, say so. Lying can dam­age your repu­ta­tion and cred­ib­il­ity if the truth emerges later.
  • Monitor your body lan­guage. Non-verbal cues can say as much as your words. Maintain an open pos­ture and eye con­tact to con­vey hon­esty and confidence.
  • Practice. Rehearse your key points and poten­tial ques­tions with a col­league or a media train­er to refine your deliv­ery and tim­ing. If pos­sible, do it on cam­era for easi­er review.
  • Manage your emo­tions. Remain calm and com­posed, even if the ques­tion­ing becomes aggress­ive. Emotional responses can be por­trayed negatively.
  • Correct mis­takes. If you mis­speak, cor­rect your­self imme­di­ately. This pre­vents mis­in­form­a­tion from spread­ing and shows your com­mit­ment to accuracy.
  • Control the pace. Speak slowly and clearly to give your­self time to think and to ensure your points are understood.
  • Use examples and anec­dotes. Personal stor­ies or spe­cif­ic examples can make your mes­sage more relat­able and memorable.
  • Know when to stop talk­ing. After mak­ing a point, it’s okay to stop speak­ing. Filling silence with unne­ces­sary elab­or­a­tion can lead to errors or off-mes­sage statements.
  • Anticipate dif­fi­cult ques­tions. Prepare for tough ques­tions in advance so you can handle them con­fid­ently without being caught off guard.
  • No blame-gam­ing. Emphasise hope­ful aspects and solu­tions rather than dwell­ing on neg­at­ive issues or blame.
  • Avoid non-apo­lo­gies. Either you’re truly sorry and wish to apo­lo­gise — or you don’t. There’s no in-between. Make up your mind before­hand. 5Silfwer, J. (2020, July 26). When a Public Apology is Warranted (And When It’s Not). Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​a​p​o​l​o​gy/
  • Avoid “no com­ment.” This phrase can appear evas­ive. If you can’t dis­cuss a top­ic, explain why, per­haps cit­ing pri­vacy or leg­al reas­ons. 6Silfwer, J. (2020, May 23). Corporate Cringe. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​r​p​o​r​a​t​e​-​c​r​i​n​ge/
  • Be mind­ful of the back­ground. The set­ting of your inter­view can also send mes­sages. Ensure the envir­on­ment reflects the image you wish to convey.
  • Respect dead­lines. Understanding a journalist’s dead­line and respond­ing promptly can help shape the story and foster a pos­it­ive relationship.
  • Follow up. After the inter­view, promptly send any prom­ised inform­a­tion or cla­ri­fic­a­tions. This helps ensure accur­acy and main­tains a pro­fes­sion­al relationship.

Learn more: Classic Media Training Advice

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Classic Media Training Mistakes

Media training mistakes.
Media train­ing mistakes.
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Classic Media Training Mistakes

Standing before a cam­era or a micro­phone can be stress­ful, espe­cially dur­ing a crisis. Therefore, many lead­ers, politi­cians, and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als invest in pro­fes­sion­al media training.

However, media train­ing can be taken too far.

Answers Without Substance

  • Typical media train­ing advice: If the report­er asks, “Is it unsafe to work for you?” You often can­’t say ‘yes.’ Just because it was unsafe once at one loc­a­tion does­n’t mean all related work envir­on­ments are unsafe. You can­’t say ‘no,’ either. It was unsafe in this spe­cif­ic situ­ation. You’re being cornered! The only thing you can do is focus on what you actu­ally can say.
  • How this advice back­fires: Being “media trained,” a spokes­per­son can get over-con­fid­ent in their abil­it­ies. And so, they believe that they can get away with card-stack­ing and talk­ing them­selves out of the situ­ation. Reporters are trained to spot this beha­viour, and instead of let­ting the spokes­per­son off the hook, they start prob­ing even harder.
  • What to do instead: Prepare your Q&A bet­ter. You must have some­thing of sub­stance to say before enter­ing the inter­view situ­ation. Even if you could talk out of a tricky ques­tion without say­ing any­thing of sub­stance, the audi­ence will dis­like you for avoid­ing the question.

Exaggerating the Bridge Technique 

  • Typical media train­ing advice: Use the bridge tech­nique. While unable or unwill­ing to accept the fun­da­ment­als of the ques­tion, the inter­viewee can add con­text, and by doing so, it’s often pos­sible to slide over to pre­pared state­ments and talk­ing points. 7Silfwer, J. (2022, June 28). Media Spokesperson Training: Get Your Message Across. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​m​e​d​i​a​-​s​p​o​k​e​s​p​e​r​s​on/
  • How this advice back­fires: It’s easy to grasp the mech­an­ics of the bridge tech­nique. The report­er asks a ques­tion, does­n’t answer it, and then dis­cusses what you want to high­light. Too often, media-trained spokespeople take this tech­nique way too far. It’s impol­ite at best and does­n’t look good on camera.
  • What to do instead: When you’ve answered a ques­tion, adding addi­tion­al con­text or insight into your ini­ti­at­ive can be help­ful to the report­er. But always ensure you add con­text or insight rel­ev­ant to the ori­gin­al question.

Parrotting Your Key Message

  • Typical media train­ing advice: Prepare a short­l­ist with key state­ments you want to con­vey. These state­ments will help when pressed by a reporter. 
  • How this advice back­fires: At times, media-trained spokes­per­sons might decide to repeat their pre­pared state­ments word-for-word, over and over again. An irrit­ated report­er could quickly pun­ish you by air­ing this type of “par­rot beha­viour” — and it’ll be ter­rible both on cam­era and in audio. 8Silfwer, J. (2020, May 23). Corporate Cringe. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​r​p​o​r​a​t​e​-​c​r​i​n​ge/
  • What to do instead: Write down single words to rep­res­ent your inten­ded talk­ing points, and remem­ber these instead of actu­al phrases. Don’t mem­or­ise word-for-word state­ments. And most import­antly, don’t say the same thing repeatedly.

Staring Down the Reporter

  • Typical media train­ing advice: Most journ­al­ists use a com­mon trick to remain silent instead of fir­ing anoth­er ques­tion. For most people, this silence is awk­ward and unpleas­ant. To escape this unpleas­ant­ness, they start talk­ing aim­lessly. The rule of thumb is to be com­fort­able and allow for a little quiet now and then.
  • How this advice back­fires: Allowing for silence is essen­tial, but you do not need to sit there and stare intensely for 30 seconds. Because this does­n’t look good, either. Many media-trained spokes­per­sons apply this advice by tri­umphantly try­ing to stare down the reporter.
  • What to do instead: If the report­er is ser­i­ous about stay­ing quiet for a long time, care­fully use the bridge tech­nique to add more con­text and insight. But take a few moments in silence to think about what you’ll say before you open your mouth. The key is not to be afraid of silence, feel the need to fill these pauses with excess­ive talk, or enter some star­ing con­test with the reporter.

Relying on Non-Apologies

  • Typical media train­ing advice: Don’t be afraid to apo­lo­gise. Making an apo­logy pub­licly is some­times just the right thing to do. The import­ant thing here is not to sound like a robot but to make sure you genu­inely empathise.
  • How this advice back­fires: More often than not, media-trained spokespeople say things like, “We’re sorry they feel this way,” “We’re sorry if this did­n’t come across,” or “We’re sorry that you’re sorry.” These state­ments are also known as non-apo­lo­gies — and every­one right­fully hates them. 9Silfwer, J. (2020, July 26). When a Public Apology is Warranted (And When It’s Not). Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​a​p​o​l​o​gy/
  • What to do instead: Connecting through emo­tions means talk­ing and act­ing like a human being. Don’t say that you’re sad; be sad. And even more import­antly, avoid non-apo­lo­gies alto­geth­er. It’s about your feel­ings on the mat­ter, not theirs. If you can­’t express human emo­tions like empathy dur­ing dif­fi­cult times, see a ther­ap­ist, not a reporter.

Using Platitudes and Jargon

  • Typical media train­ing advice: Never spec­u­late. Nothing good ever came from second-guess­ing any­thing in front of a report­er. Stick to what you know.
  • How this advice back­fires: Media-trained spokespeople rarely say things like “no com­ment” or “I can neither con­firm nor deny.” They know bet­ter. However, resort­ing, as many do, to plat­it­udes and jar­gon instead is not a much bet­ter strategy. 10Silfwer, J. (2015, October 9). The Platitude Sickness: The Trash of Corporate Writing. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​l​a​t​i​t​u​d​e​-​s​i​c​k​n​e​ss/
  • What to do instead: Avoid cor­por­ate cringe. Talk like you would with someone you met on the street ask­ing for dir­ec­tions you do not know, and nev­er resort to platitudes.

Transposing Human Emotions

  • Typical media train­ing advice: The story is always about people, so you should focus on those dir­ectly involved. Addressing share­hold­ers, mar­kets, and cus­tom­ers will have to come second.
  • How this advice back­fires: To address the human aspect, many spokespeople make the mis­take of try­ing too hard to reas­sure people. But it’s nev­er a good idea to tell people not to worry if they aren’t ready. If you con­tra­dict people’s feel­ings, you’re act­ively dis­qual­i­fy­ing their real emotions.
  • What to do instead: Don’t talk about oth­er people as if you have magic­al insights into how they feel. Once again, it’s about your feel­ings, not theirs.

Learn more: Classic Media Training Mistakes

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Signature - Jerry Silfwer - Doctor Spin

Thanks for read­ing. Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing art­icles with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. You might also con­sider my PR ser­vices or speak­ing engage­ments.

PR Resource: PR and Stoicism

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PR and Stoicism

I’m inspired by Stoicism — and intrigued by the idea of trans­lat­ing clas­sic­al Stoic vir­tues (wis­dom, cour­age, justice, tem­per­ance) and apply­ing them to pub­lic rela­tions:

The Wisdom Pitch

A Stoic is someone who trans­forms fear into prudence, pain into trans­form­a­tion, mis­takes into ini­ti­ation, and desires into under­tak­ing.”
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Tell PR stor­ies of how organ­isa­tions can be wise and over­come obstacles that have stopped oth­ers in their tracks. Convey PR mes­sages on how to apply wis­dom, know­ledge, and experience.

The Courage Pitch

We can­not choose our cir­cum­stances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
— Epictetus

Tell PR stor­ies of brands that nev­er back down in the face of hard­ships that would des­troy oth­er organ­isa­tions. Convey PR mes­sages of how an organ­isa­tion can be right­eous even when storms are raging.

The Justice Pitch

Concentrate every minute on doing what’s in front of you with pre­cise and genu­ine ser­i­ous­ness, ten­derly, will­ingly, with justice.”
— Marcus Aurelius

Tell PR stor­ies of how organ­isa­tions relent­lessly can strive for hon­esty and trans­par­ency — even when uncom­fort­able. Convey PR mes­sages about how all brands, without excep­tion, can rid them­selves of dis­hon­esty and incompetence.

The Temperance Pitch

It’s not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”
— Seneca

Tell PR stor­ies of organ­isa­tions that strive for high­er val­ues in a world where all oth­er organ­isa­tions suf­fer short­sighted­ness. Convey PR mes­sages of organ­isa­tions pre­pared to abstain from short-term gains to make the world bet­ter for all.

Learn more: Stoic Philosophy for PR Professionals

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PR Resource: The High Road Tonality

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The High Road Tonality

An organ­isa­tion is the poly­phon­ic 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 the 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
2 Silfwer, J. (2024, May 2). The Core Message. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​r​e​-​m​e​s​s​a​ge/
3, 7 Silfwer, J. (2022, June 28). Media Spokesperson Training: Get Your Message Across. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​m​e​d​i​a​-​s​p​o​k​e​s​p​e​r​s​on/
4, 10 Silfwer, J. (2015, October 9). The Platitude Sickness: The Trash of Corporate Writing. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​l​a​t​i​t​u​d​e​-​s​i​c​k​n​e​ss/
5, 9 Silfwer, J. (2020, July 26). When a Public Apology is Warranted (And When It’s Not). Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​a​p​o​l​o​gy/
6, 8 Silfwer, J. (2020, May 23). Corporate Cringe. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​r​p​o​r​a​t​e​-​c​r​i​n​ge/
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.
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