Doctor SpinPublic 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 on to the next stage—not absolution.

A public apology is not about forgiveness.

In this article, you’ll get 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 right is to thoroughly understand the situation.

Here we go:

Table of Contents

    The 3 Components of an Apology

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

    The audience typically won’t consider anyone’s public apology until they understand why someone did what they did—and how they feel about having done 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”).

    From a public relations perspective, public apologies are fascinating. They’re to be found everywhere, and the news media can’t seem to get enough of these dramatic statements.

    Different Types of Public Apologies

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

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

    Non-Apologies Apologies

    Many public apologies results 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 that they failed to do what they promised me.”

    Pathological Apologies

    Sometimes, non-apologies take a dark turn. Demonstrating lingering aggression (and no actual remorse) is a clear sign 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 that 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. Still, their effectiveness will depend significantly 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, 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 are 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, 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 I acted out.”
    “I’m sorry — I’m sick, and I need help.”
    “I’m sorry — I was weak.”

    Circumstantial Apologies

    Circumstantial Apologies can be efficient to direct the focus towards a specific situation:

    “I’m sorry that someone took me by surprise and caught me off-guard.”
    “I’m sorry that I lacked the skills to manage that particular 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.

    Stoic Apologies can be powerful yet simple, but some might interpret their intention as misconstrued martyrdom.

    Is there any honest regret?

    “I’m sorry, and I take full responsibility for my actions.”
    “I’m sorry; 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.”

    Suspicion is the Ground State

    When encountering any of the above examples, most of us will be naturally suspicious.

    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 methods to obtain forgiveness or prevent any 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.

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, aka 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.
    Buy PR Merch

    Grab a free subscription before you go.

    Get notified of new blog posts & new PR courses

    🔒 Please read my integrity- and cookie policy.

    ROI and PR are like oil and water — they don't mix well. The basic ROI model lacks fundamental variables to be useful for PR
    Most popular