How to Apologize (and Why It's So Hard to Do Well)
Whether you're a celebrity, a CEO, or a regular ol' person just going about your business, there's a good chance you've had to apologize at least once or twice in your life.
In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk about the art of apologizing in a sincere and meaningful way -- and why so many people (ourselves included) struggle to do this well.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Is it Enough to Just Say You’re Sorry?"
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”
- "What are the Pitfalls that Businesses Face When Engaging in Social Media?" by Abbie Fink
- "Crisis communication in the time of YouTube" by Annelise Krafft
- "United Airlines Dog Disaster" by Breanne Krager
- "H&M Under Fire" by Breanne Krager
- "A Tip for Tuesday – Talk Ain’t Cheap!" by Alison Bailin
Need to hire a PR firm?
We demystify the process and give you some helpful advice in Episode 19: "How to Hire a Public Relations Agency in Arizona: Insider Tips for Executives and Marketing Directors"
Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B online radio station and podcast studio in Arizona.
I messed up and I'm sorry. Apologies are such an important part of communication, and we see them all the time in the media. Some of them good, some of them maybe not so good. Some of them sincere, some of them not. We all make mistakes. We're all human. And when we make mistakes, we know we're supposed to apologize. But it turns out how you apologize and how you communicate sincerely that you're sorry is not straightforward. Here to talk about this is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, you've been making the tour of local TV stations talking about some things in the media, and the core of a lot of it is apologizing. What's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Well, and I'm sorry that we have to even discuss the fact that we might be sorry. Right? It's all about apologizing for doing something that has come across the wrong way, that is not perceived correctly, that is not doing something right, but really owning that mistake and apologizing with a very sincere, meaningful, I want to do better attitude. And I'm not sure a lot of times that that's actually what we do and what we say when we say, "I'm sorry." Oftentimes the "I'm sorry" is still blaming you for the reason you feel bad. "I'm sorry that you didn't understand what I was saying." Well, that's not truly an apology. And we're taught at a very young age to say, "I'm sorry," but I'm not sure that we're given the full understanding of why we're supposed to say that other than it gets us out of trouble, we aren't grounded, we don't lose privileges if we just say, "I'm sorry." I mean, I can tell you how many times when my sister and I were younger, "Just apologize to your sister." "Okay. I'm sorry." But I really wasn't.Adrian McIntyre:
You really got me thinking when we started chatting about this topic. I'm a parent. I have two boys, six and-a-half and nine. And they're energetic and strong-willed and opinionated, and that creates conflict sometimes between them, sometimes between us and one or the other of them. And you got me thinking about the fact that I don't think we generally teach kids how to be sincere when they apologize. In fact, we do the opposite. We train them to be insincere. "Apologize to your brother." Well, I'm not actually sorry that I punched him in the mouth. It felt really good, and it's in the moment, and I'm proud of myself for doing it. Apologize to the neighbor. Apologize everywhere. We force in sincere apologies on kids. And then when they're grownups, whether they're celebrities or CEOs or what have you, and they make a public mistake and they need to apologize, we heckle them for having not done it well. When in fact, I don't want to let anybody off the hook here, by the way, but maybe they were also never really shown what a sincere, meaningful, heartfelt apology looks like.Abbie Fink:
Right. Well, and think about if you're walking down the street and you bump into someone accidentally and you say, "Oh, I'm sorry." Well, you probably are. Right? Because there was no thought given to that. You bumped somebody, you said, "I'm sorry." If I have to tell you, you need to apologize, it's taken away the meaning. It's likely the activity had occurred long enough ago, even it could have been five minutes or five years ago, that the incident itself may not even be remembered. And I think back over the course of even the last handful of days where I've done something or said something, and it evoked an emotion in the person that heard it or received it that was not what I intended, and I needed to apologize. And thinking about this topic and thinking about some of the conversations I've had, I really went back to look to see how I said I was sorry. And looking at it. I'm not sure that it is... I mean, I meant it to be sincere, certainly, but whether or not that actually came across. And the most difficult thing I think we can do in any conversation is really admitting that we might have been wrong, or better said, that we are wrong and that we need to acknowledge that and apologize for it.Adrian McIntyre:
Yeah, we get really defensive when it's brought to our attention, and that makes it harder. Because I know for myself as a husband as well as a person, if it's brought to my attention that I need to apologize, I'm less willing to do it. Even though I know they're right and I made a mistake, the fact that it was pointed out to me, I think with everybody, it triggers a defensive reaction. We feel attacked. And this is something we need to do better about. It's not okay to have our shield go up. We need to make it right. And unwinding some of that learned behavior is not straightforward and not easy.Abbie Fink:
Right. And for me personally, I get a little kick in the gut when I know I'm headed down that path and that what I'm about to do or say isn't good. This is not going to come off well, I'm not going to sound professional. I am not going to be kind. And sometimes that train just keeps going, and it doesn't stop until it hits. And even then when you feel like you should apologize, "I shouldn't have said that. I'm really sorry. That is so not what I intended or how I meant it to come across." The other challenge, I think, is that we have become very reliant on, and this is coming from someone who lives words as my breath. Right? Everything I do is writing. Our dependency on writing sometimes doesn't always portray the meaning. And sarcasm is very difficult to portray in the written word. And as I've said, no matter how many emoji we can add to a sentence, it never comes across the way it was intended. You're relying on the reader to interpret what you meant. There's no visual component. You don't get to see me. You don't get to hear me or what I'm saying or how I'm... if I do have a smile on my face when I'm saying it, you're reliant on that. And therefore, when we attempt to apologize, similarly, it may not come off in the way that we were intended. Now, there's a lot of... and thinking about it from a business perspective. And the early thoughts when social media was beginning to become part of a business environment was going back to the platform that the error occurred to issue your apology. Right? So, if you said or did something on Facebook, then put your correction and your apology or your re re-invention of the process in the format that it came in. And that may still be the best advice is to put it back out there. But with so much access now to this technology, and so many people really taking on the responsibility of calling people out, there is no real forgiveness anymore in that social media platform and things don't go away. And so, you can apologize for something today. If you repeat the behavior, it's going to be found out. Right? You can go back five years, eight years, however long the platforms are around, and find previous behavior. And so, when we talk about it from an apology perspective and how do you come back from something that you might've done or said that came across that way is really looking at the pattern. And that's whether we're talking about that in a social media environment, in a business environment, or we're talking about it in a human interaction. Right? If I continue to do that crappy behavior, then my apology truly doesn't mean anything. Because we're going to go back and do the same thing, why should I believe your apology? You don't prove yourself.Adrian McIntyre:
For sure. A couple of points that I think are really worth underlining. One is, as you rightly point out, the internet is forever. And 20 years ago, 30 years ago, a lot of bad behavior went unremarked outside of the circles of gossip or complaining or redress, legal or otherwise, that people were deploying to deal with bad behavior. And it could be denied outside of those moments. Now, really everything, especially because we're doing so much of our communication connection with people online, it really lives there forever. I mean, you can't undo it. On the one hand, I think this is going to elevate over time. As we all adjust to the new reality, this is going to elevate human behavior at some level. That's my hope, anyway, that we start to... knowing that everything we do is more public than ever before, and we're just one viral video away from the end of everything we had hoped and dreamed for if we're behaving badly. I hope that makes us all do better, be better. And when it doesn't, and when the apologies for that bad behavior are so inauthentic, or so flat, or so clearly "I'm not apologizing for what I did. I'm apologizing for the fact that I got caught," or "I wish you would all just go away now, so I'm going to go through the motions." And I think of many different public apologies that have been issued by celebrities, actors, sports figures in golf, for example, or cycling, folks whose entire careers or personal lives were built on a lie. And then when that came out, they had to confront it. They didn't have to, but they eventually did. And in a number of those cases, which because their lawyers are better than mine, I'm not going to name just in case. Who knows these days what counts is slander and what doesn't? In a number of those cases, the apology was terrible. It was forced, it was flat, it felt false. Nobody believed it. It would almost have been better not to do it. I don't know. What are your thoughts about this?Abbie Fink:
Well, and it's interesting you should... Because I think about in particular when we are engaged in managing a crisis or an issue for someone and the statements that we have to help write. And so many of them sound like that, or could sound like that. And so, it's taking a step back and what are we saying, and what does it mean when we say it, and how we'll be able to stand by this and move it forward. And the bottom line for me on this is, I believe we all want to be better, as you said. And so, it is impossible to believe that none of us will make a mistake and at some point we will have to apologize. Right? We can't assume we're above doing all of that. And I want to think that I am a better person today than I was yesterday, than I was five years ago, than I was 10 years ago. So, if something I did 10 years ago comes back today, and I am faced with it, and I need to accommodate it into whatever's happening, do I need to apologize, do I need to own it, whatever that is. It's what have I done since that occurred and have I repeated the behavior? Is the incident that was called into question that got found out still happening? And if it is then, that's where those apologies just don't work. But if I have demonstrated, or the business has demonstrated, or the individual has demonstrated, that they've changed and that what they did and said then is not who they are today. We all have the ability to grow and learn, and we should be able to change our minds, and we should be able to have new opinions and think differently about things. So, I'm not in favor of holding it against somebody that they might have made this mistake and that they are attempting to make it better. But if the making it better hasn't really happened, and that the apology is simply to move it along or prevent loss of business or prevent endorsements from going away, then I'm not so sure that that's what we mean. And the access to this information is like it's never been before. If a conversation between you and I would have just between you and I. And if I was bullying you, and I was calling you names, and I was creating havoc, it was between you and I on the playground or wherever it was. Well, now that behavior is amplified. We have the ability to really do this in a larger context. We have to recognize that among our fans, followers, whatnot, the influence that those conversations can have, and really take responsibility for what you're doing and what you're saying. And again, I'm not saying you can be 100% perfect, but you better be 100% willing to own up to what you've shared, and the impact that what you're saying might have on those that are receiving it. When I put a Facebook post out into the world, I don't know how people are going to perceive it, but I better own it and say, "I said it. You're right. And this is what I meant." And this is good, bad or otherwise, what am I going to do with it now?Adrian McIntyre:
When we think about an apology, a moment of apology, we are talking about a communication. And as such, there's a lot of complexity to it. I mean, human language and the verbal and nonverbal cues that we all are using in a very sophisticated way to interpret what's happening around us, and the emotional charge that's often attached to the situation that caused damage, caused harm, caused upset, makes this a delicate communication to deliver. So, as we wrap up the conversation, let's be a little practical and tactical. Let's talk a little bit about what has to be there. I mean, certainly to just kick this off, it seems you have to actually be sorry. Not just sorry that you got caught, as I said, but actually sorry for what you did and the impact it had on other people. But it's not enough to simply say, "I'm sorry." But if you go too far the other side, and then you end up seeming like you're trying to explain it away, then it's like you're not owning it. If you go into all the description of the context and the things that makes it seem like you're not taking responsibility for your action and the impact that it caused. So, there's a lot of little moving parts there. What would you say are some of the core ingredients that need to be there for this communication to land, whether it's interpersonal, one-on-one, or whether it's delivered to the masses?Abbie Fink:
Well, and as you said, sincerely apologize and own the error that it is. I did this, It's not that I did this and you reacted that way. I did this, and this is wrong. I also think it's the timeliness of when that apology happens. And it is entirely possible that you do or say something, and you don't know that it had a negative impact until someone calls it to your attention. But the minute you realize, or that it has been found out, someone has told you, you have to get on that apology. Right? It is not a, "Oh yeah, three weeks ago someone told me, and here's my apology." That's not going to cut it. And so, the timeliness of it, the sincerity of it, and really then what are you going to do to rectify the situation or ensure that it doesn't happen again. And if it is, I said something, then apologize and don't repeat that behavior. If you have done something in a larger context, in a business environment or whatever, well, what are you doing operationally to ensure it doesn't happen again? What are you going to do as a business? What are you doing as a business owner? What are you doing to make sure that if our company put a product on the market that is faulty, that's a recall, and we are going to take that back to the processing, and we're going to figure out what it is, and we're not going to put that back on the streets until we are absolutely sure we've corrected that issue. And then do that. And if you have done some... This is not about throwing money at it. This is not about I'm going to make a donation to make this go away. That is not a sincere effort, either. Now, the organization may happily accept your contribution, but if you are not going to do something to change the behavior. And I think what we have to recognize in all of this is words matter. And whether those words are spoken or delivered in that way, or whether they are done as a result of our keyboards, we have to take responsibility for what we say. We have to own and acknowledge it, and then truly make a difference. And be sure that moving forward, we don't repeat the behavior. And so, as I said, thinking about the last week and where I might have done or said something that didn't land the way I wanted it to, and then going back and thinking about my apology. I can talk about it and I still make those same... I have to think differently about what I do. I still make those same... What I advise, I may not always do it correctly myself the first time. So, I went back and I thought about it, and in one particular case required really what became a second apology. I apologized to you last week, and thinking about it, I still really didn't own what I did, and I'd like to apologize again for that. And you know what, that was all that needed. There was no excuse. I didn't have to explain anything more. And I think as we think about the latest and greatest celebrity faux pas and they're issuing apologies and going out and doing something, will the apology stand, and can we go back and say the next time, you know what, they really did do what they said they were going to do. They acted differently. They responded in a different way. And that sincerity and that acknowledgement of the behavior goes a long way. And being smart about what you do next is obviously the way to avoid having to go back and do that another time.Adrian McIntyre:
I think at the root of all of it is, are we willing to be held accountable in the future for the promises that we've made today? And does our apology acknowledge and take responsibility for not just what we did, but the damage that we caused, the impact that we caused? And it may often take something more than words to make that right. If you steal money from somebody, saying sorry is part of it, but giving the money back to make them whole again is also part of what needs to happen. And then the willingness to be held accountable in the future for our claim that we've learned our lesson, we're not going to do this again. So, a lot of moving parts, a lot of emotions running high. At the end of the day, I think we all want the best from others, and we all want the best from ourselves. Now, some days we're more likely to get there than other days. But when someone's intent is good, is honest, we can see that they're impacted by what they've done. We can feel their genuine remorse and willingness to do something to change themselves and others and make it all better. I think we want to give people the benefit of the doubt. We want to believe them. It's when those things aren't there that we all are cynical and able to say, "Well, that was a PR stunt. That was not a real apology."Abbie Fink:
Right. Right. Again, thinking about this primarily at this point from a social media perspective. I put something out, and then instantly it is attacked or... It can work the other way, too. You can be applauded for what you've done and elevated. There's a lot of good that happens. This is not all a negative situation. But the instantaneous reaction to something that someone does. And there can be no doubt if you're going to be called to task on social. I mean, you will know quickly. Those things happen and you get called out on them. And then your response and what you do about it. And there are going to... This is not going to go away. The question will come up again and again. So-and-So did this. Can they repair their reputation? Can they fix that? And we've discussed this before about an operational problem that becomes a public relations problem. Well, we can have our own operational problems. Right? People can also have a breakdown in some fashion and do something different that they wish they wouldn't have done, and then it becomes a PR challenge. And so, what do you do? How do you respond? What are you going to do to fix it? What are you going to change and not do it again, or do differently? That's where it all resides. And when we are working with our clients, and if they are faced with a situation that may become a crisis, or they are faced with an issue that will elevate, those are the questions we go back and we talk about in terms... What did we do? Could we have prevented it? If not, what are we doing now? What are we going to say? When are we going to say it? How are we going to say it? Who's going to say it? It's equally as important that the right spokesperson within an organization is the one to deliver in the event of a situation where an apology is... if we're talking about a business versus an individual. And how do we follow that through so that it's not just a one and done, but what are the actions that we're going to take, and what can that business or individual do now that that apology has been stated, or that statement has been made to make sure tomorrow, the next day, a year from now is that we have chartered a new path for that conversation? And that's where the sincerity comes in, and that's where the apology gets accepted, and we move forward from that. And it is possible. You can do that, and you can find success. You just have to come to it from the right spot and be willing to own it and move forward from it.
If you enjoyed today’s show, please find and follow Copper State of Mind in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast app. You can also find the show online at HMAPR.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I’m Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Copper State of Mind.