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Public Apology:  An Unapologetic Primer

By Douglas Thompson1 and Patrick Field2

We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry…. Following the severe winter ice storm in the Northeast, we subjected our customers to unacceptable delays, flight cancellations, lost baggage, and other major inconveniences….You deserved better—a lot better—from us last week. Nothing is more important than regaining your trust and all of us here hope you will give us the opportunity to welcome you onboard again soon and provide you the positive Jet Blue experience you have come to expect from us.
--David Neeleman, Founder and CEO, JetBlue Airways


The comment was not meant to be a regional slur. To the extent that it was misinterpreted to be one, I apologize.

 --Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor after referring to potential jurors in the eastern Kentucky mountains as “illiterate cave dwellers.”

Sorry.  The word has always had a lot of currency.  Bump into someone accidentally boarding a train…  “Sorry about that.”  Didn’t quite catch what was said...  “Sorry?”  Feeling sympathy for another’s pain or loss...  “I’m terribly sorry to hear…”  Dissatisfied with someone’s performance...  “Sorry, buddy, you can do better.”  The word can even be turned in an ungentle direction:  “I’m sorry, apparently you are incapable of understanding my point” or “Stop feeling sorry for yourself or even “Get your sorry *#! out of bed!”   However, its first listing in the dictionary is “feeling regret.” Apology is commonly defined as “a written or spoken expression of one's regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another…” 

Public Apologies

Public apologies, once about as popular as root canal work, seem much in vogue these days.   Of late there has been a seemingly endless penitent’s parade of elected officials, executives, movie stars, academic figures, religious figures, talk show hosts, and athletes expressing remorse and regret for things said and done ranging from personal peccadilloes to jokes gone bad to poor performance and assorted other antics and regrettable behaviors.3 Are these expressions a healthy evolution from the Duke’s4 on screen advice—“Never apologize!”—and a refreshing acknowledgment of our collective human fallibility?  Or are they a contrived maneuver to spin public opinion, avoid the rightful consequences of mischief and cheapen a redemption that should be hard earned?  Just what are the characteristics of an effective apology in the public arena?  A poor one? What sorts of risks face apologetic public officials and agencies and can they be minimized without changing what started as an authentic sentiment into something sounding phony and calculated?  When is some other response—empathy, for example, more appropriate than an apology and just what is the difference anyway? 

As mediators, we often encounter situations where parties might either seek an apology or contemplate delivering one.  In other cases, even where the prospect of an apology has not been explicitly raised by the parties, we might nevertheless perceive that one might help repair a frayed relationship, build trust or enable parties to hear each other more clearly.  Apologies are often private in nature; the exchange takes place—and stays—between two individuals.  In other cases, expressions of contrition are “semi-private” where a person might apologize to several individuals or a roomful of people, some or all of whom think they have been wronged.  Word might get around town but it is not front page news.   In other cases, the apologist stands, chastened, in full view of the media.  What advice would we give those thinking about offering an apology, particularly when it might be toward the more visible and public end of the spectrum? 

Despite being much in fashion, apologies are not always appropriate or helpful. If a public official with the benefit of hindsight would not do anything differently given the chance or if no error (even one discernable only in retrospect) occurred, then the grounds do not likely exist for an apology.  In those situations, a related type of response may be more appropriate.  In contrast, errors, mistakes, missteps, poor judgment, assorted human foibles, accidents, bureaucratic inanities, bungles, various forms of intemperance, well-intentioned efforts that made things worse, oversights, anomalous situations, circumstances where the few suffer for the good of the many—all may call for some sort of apology. 

An apology requires acknowledging a mistake or failure of some kind and includes a recognition of harm suffered or offense taken.  To varying degrees, apologies normally take some responsibility for the acts in question, include expressions of sorrow or contrition and may include promises of remedy or correction.  As even the most casual newspaper reader knows, apologies range from the movingly heartfelt and direct to laughable faux apologies that do not own up to much of anything. 

Although people often speak of “simply apologizing” the reality is anything but simple; to acknowledge a transgression and seek to put matters right can be a complex act. Experience and common sense point to several touchstones that increase the likelihood of an effective apology.  By “effective” we mean foremost an apology that recipients hear clearly and perceive as authentic.   In addition, effective apologies typically address strong emotions in play, respond to issues of compromised integrity or morality, help repair ruptured relationships, and reduce the prospects for further damage (e.g., bad publicity, lawsuits, loss of market share, erosion of trust and so forth). In many cases, of course, no apology, however sincere and well formulated, can wholly remedy harms that have occurred; compensation may need to be paid, those wronged may remain angry and resentful and lost confidence may only slowly be regained.  Would be apologizers would do well to remember that recipients own the effectiveness of an apology as much (if not more) than the one offering it.   A heartfelt, well-crafted apology might be rejected out of hand just as a fake and poorly constructed one might be embraced.

General Principles
While we emphasize that there is no standard apology “recipe” and that each situation needs its own diagnosis about whether and how to apologize, certain general principles apply much of the time:

Right Timing.  As a general rule, the closer the apology comes to the actual or perceived harm, the more likely it is to be effective.  In some cases, where strong emotions are dominating, a cooling off period or some time for the reality of a situation to become accepted before apologizing may be advisable so the recipients are better able to hear what is being said.  In other circumstances, establishing some key facts before offering an apology makes sense to avoid either unnecessary contrition or having to amend matters later.  Most often, however, earlier apologies work better than later ones. Delayed or reluctant apologies, especially those that follow what might appear to be failed attempts of evasion or denial will almost always be awarded less credence.  Typically, of course, apologies do not precede the harm and might needlessly undercut confidence (do you want your surgeon saying, “I apologize in advance for any mistakes I might make?”).   In other circumstances, however, some anticipatory acknowledgment of likely-to-occur unpleasantness may reduce the need for a future contrition.

Clear and Specific.  Convoluted, nebulous or meringue-like apologies will confuse listeners at best; worse, it may inflame the situation.  Early after taking office, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick responded to some criticism about increasing the gubernatorial office and automobile perks with the following apology:  “I am so sorry that we all have spent the kind of time we have on what we have spent time on, and I am sorry to have been responsible for that.”  He seems sorry—doubly so, in fact—but would the listener have any clue about what?  In contrast, consider the Jet Blue apology at the beginning of this article in which the airline cites lost baggage, unacceptable delays and flight cancellations.  Effective apologies require facts, specificity and naming the wrongs done and the hurt caused.

Accept People Where They Are.  If parties are sad, hurt or just plain mad, it may help to acknowledge those feelings emphatically and, if possible, acknowledge those emotional responses as legitimate.  As we discuss below, expressions of sympathy or empathy, while not apologies in and of themselves, may be important elements of an effective apology.   The natural urge is to defend oneself, to ignore it, silence it, in short, make it go away.  But given hurt and harm done, a key part of an apology may be accepting and acknowledging the emotions those wronged feel, however unpleasant they may be.  Too late, and sorry means little.  Too early, and sorry just means please make your anger (and my discomfort) go away.

Just Apologize.  Robert Frost once wrote that “Anything more than the truth would be too much.”  Likewise, anything more than the apology may be too much, especially at the outset.  There may well be valid explanations and reasons for why things unfolded as they did but refrain for emphasizing those at the outset.  What might seem like a rational explanation to the apologizer may sound to the recipients as attempts to deflect, shift blame and make excuses.    If your flight was cancelled, your bags lost and you missed your kid’s birthday party, you are more likely to hear a direct and forceful apology rather than explanations about how meteorologists blew the weather forecast or circumstances conspired to create an unprecedented situation.  Explanations are not apologies.  Defenses are an apologia, but will be simply Greek to those wishing just for “sorry.”

Take or Promise Action.  It can often be useful to follow the apology (sometimes immediately) with explanations of what happened and why, descriptions of investigations underway and promised next steps to prevent a reoccurrence.  While some recipients may be moved by an apology, others may view it as “just words, not action.”   Actions consistent with the apology should be detailed, ideally in ways that are transparent and accountable.  

Be Personal if Possible.  In some cases—apologizing for historical crimes for instance—there is an inevitable distance between the events generating the apology and the one doing the apologizing.5 In general, however, apologizing “on behalf” of organizations or other people or other rhetorical devices that insulate the apologizer from the misdeeds in question will come across as less than heartfelt.  Consider, on the other hand, how when a high-level Air Force official came to a community affected by groundwater contamination from a military base he said in public forum:  “I am sorry we polluted your water.  I am sorry that we have not dealt with investigation and cleanup in the way we should have.  I will take responsibility for ensuring that the Air Force makes your community whole again.”  Even though he did not himself pollute the water, this personal, first person statement was well received.  In a few circumstances, it can help to have a neutral assist with an apology.  One of our colleagues recalls mediating a case where each party wished to apologize but neither could bring itself to do so.  The mediator was able to put the apology on the table as a reciprocal gesture which the parties accepted and helped end the dispute.6

Be Genuine.  If you are not sorry, then don’t pretend to be. Less principled advice would be to at least create appearance of sincerity.  In either case, the recipients of an apology will be the ones to ascribe motive and intention.  A phony apology may make things worse—possibly much more so—than none at all.  Examples of seemingly insincere, coerced, petulant apologies abound.  Consider Rush Limbaugh and his efforts to backtrack after confronting Michael J. Fox for "exaggerating the effects of Parkinson's disease."  "…I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."  In other words, if I am wrong I will apologize.  Or the words of Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor, whose apology (see above) referred to prospective jurors in the eastern Kentucky mountains as "illiterate cave dwellers."  "The comment was not meant to be a regional slur," Taylor said. "To the extent that it was misinterpreted to be one, I apologize."  Here we see an attempt to plead malice down to lack of intention and even suggest that it is the listeners fault for not interpreting the real meaning (which would be what one might ask).  There are numerous artful rhetorical devices depersonalizing an apology—passive voice, apologizing for the “impact of inappropriate conduct,” pointing to those who “misinterpret” or statements along the lines of “For those I offended … I apologize.”  In other words, it’s really your fault but if you are going to be a crybaby, well, then here’s your apology.  

Some Other Dynamics

Even an apology that on its face touches all the right bases may be difficult to interpret with certainty.  Consider this apology after the Columbia disaster that seems almost as searing as the explosion that destroyed the spacecraft:

I had the opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it.  I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster.  We could discuss the particulars:  inattention, incompetence, distraction, lack of conviction, lack of understanding, a lack of backbone, laziness.  The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted.  Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing Columbia to crash.  –W. Wayne Hale, Jr., NASA

Yikes.  Did he put all the responsibility upon himself because that is how he felt?  Was he doing his duty in a Harry Truman-esque, the buck-stops here kind of way? Or was he trying to protect others on his team, maintain morale and prevent an erosion of confidence?  Was he assuming, willingly or not, the role of scapegoat to contain the damage and perhaps spare others?   Did he labor over these words or did they come in one flashing heartfelt moment?  We do not know.  Perhaps the apology in part helped W. Wayne Hale and NASA move on:  Hale has been promoted and the shuttle is flying again.

We mediators rather like to point parties, maybe a bit too facilely, to the supposed benefits of giving and accepting apologies.  It is true that an increasing body of research demonstrates the salubrious effects upon both those offering and those receiving apologies.  So why do many parties hesitate to apologize and why do we often see so many apologies that seem either half-assed or heavily lawyered?  Part of the explanation is doubtless human nature—it is hard to admit error, to acknowledge hurting or harming other people; for most of us, making mistakes and visibly admitting to them is not central to our self image.  This can be especially difficult for leaders, who by dint of temperament and position, wish to appear strong and competent as well as having a reputation to uphold.  Indeed, for many of us, our brains will go to great lengths to concoct explanations that minimize our own culpability in cases where, ahem, “mistakes were made.” 

There is more than human hubris or lack of empathy at work, however.  In reality, those contemplating an apology often find themselves impaled on the horns of a dilemma.  A finely constructed and delivered apology may well reduce negative emotions, rebuild fractured relationships, reduce the risk of litigation and create conditions for better understanding. In some circumstances, however, an apology may have negative consequences or even result in the very responses one sought to avoid.  While in most cases, an apology can help address strong emotions and promote forgiveness, in some circumstances it might inflame feelings, fuel a stronger thirst for retribution or draw broader attention to misdeeds.  Likewise, while there is good evidence that apologies more often than not diminish the risk of litigation, the reverse can sometimes happen--it may increase the prospect of a lawsuit or criminal prosecution or even catalyze legal action not previously considered.

Imagine for example you are a decision-maker faced with a crisis of some sort and your crack staff provides the following (hypothetical) analysis:   “We would like the conflict we face to be resolved, our credibility restored and above all to avoid litigation.  As matters stand now, we think there is a 40% chance of a lawsuit being filed with all the associated negative publicity.  If we offer a candid and full apology there is a 50% chance of calming the situation and reducing the prospect of litigation.  There is a 30% chance that such an apology will not materially affect matters one way or another, and a 20% chance that it will backfire and make litigation both more likely and more risky.”  While it is seldom possible to calculate realistic odds so precisely, the basic conundrum is real.

What do you do?  Strive for the best and most likely outcome and issue the full blown apology?  Or avoid the risk of aggravating an already bad situation and having the apology boomerang back in the form of more strident opposition or litigation?  Little wonder that in many such circumstances parties respond by trying to have it both ways with qualified apologies, nebulous expressions of regret that acknowledge no real responsibility, assertions of being misinterpreted, and other such equivocations and qualifications.  Unfortunately such attempts to garner both the benefits and reduce the risks of an apology are rarely effective.    

One idea gaining traction is to protect apologies legally.  Under this approach, apologies, similar to offers made in settlement negotiations cannot be construed or entered into evidence as an admission of legal liability.   In 2003, Colorado enacted a law making apologies offered by health care providers inadmissible as evidence of liability and since that time several dozen other states have followed suit although the legislative particulars vary.

We recognize that in many circumstances public officials receive complaints but feel that they are, essentially, “doing their job” and need not apologize for their actions.  Yes, apologies should be reserved for those situations where something has indeed gone wrong although the mistake need not be catastrophic, malevolent or even avoidable; however, it should be possible to point to some error or action, at least in retrospect, that should have been handled differently.  In contrast where the actions of public officials in the course of normal business result in unavoidable hardship or citizen discontent, then a more empathetic and less apologetic response would be indicated.  If new highway construction or a Superfund remedial action will require the taking of a cherished family homestead, the affected parties may be sad and angry.  Many of the specifics of a good apology discussed above—expressing regret in a clear and specific manner, “meeting people where they are,” acknowledging strong emotions—would all be appropriate responses even though the public official or the organization that he or she represents has done nothing requiring an apology.  In some situations a simple acknowledgement of the obvious can go a long way:  “I am sorry that this is such a bureaucratic process and that you have had to wait so long.”  

In our work, both in 8 and with the public sector, we have sometimes found hesitation to express empathy, much less be apologetic, especially in the context of adversarial situations (e.g., an enforcement action).  We think this reluctance stems in part from psychological factors—it is often easier to caricature than truly characterize—and from a concern that to empathize or acknowledge openly the other side’s perspective somehow grants it more legitimacy than it warrants.  Nevertheless, early in an enforcement settlement negotiation, for example, if an agency official says, “Look, we realize it is no fun being on the receiving end of an enforcement action and we hear that you feel that you have been treated unfairly” reflects acknowledgment, not agreement.  Such responses often have strategic value; parties who feel heard and understood are frequently better able to understand other points of view and negotiate more reasonably. 

We hope you have found these thoughts about apologies of value.  If not, well, mea culpa. We are truly and deeply sorry for taking your time!

The authors wish to thank friends and colleagues Elissa Tonkin, David Matz and Peter Adler for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

1 Senior Mediator, The Keystone Center

2 Managing Director, The Consensus Building Institute

3 An abbreviated sampler includes George Bush (conditions at Walter Reed Army hospital); Eliot Spitzer (extra-marital dalliances); Mel Gibson (anti-Semitic remarks); Larry Summers (comments about women in science); Don Imus (comments about Rutgers women’s basketball team); Michael Vick (animal cruelty) and Alex Rodriquez (steroid use).   

4 John Wayne, not Wellington.  

5 Consider for example, President Clinton’s 1993 apology to native Hawaiians for U.S. complicity in overthrowing a legitimate monarchy in the late 1800s and annexing the Islands illegally.

6 Thanks to Peter Adler for this story.

7 We will not address here an interesting but distinct question of whether what many describe as “political correctness run amok” has resulted in an increase in unmerited apologies. 

8 Prior to joining Keystone, Doug Thompson worked for 26 years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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