Public Apology: An Unapologetic Primer

Douglas Thompson
EPA Public Involvement Network News
May 2009

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
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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.”
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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.

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