Sorry seems to be the hardest word: or, the art of the non-apology

Im Sorry

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
― Benjamin Franklin

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”
― John Wayne

Every once in a while, people in public life have to apologise for something they’ve said or done. While never an easy thing to get right, of late public apologies have ranged from the grudging to borderline rude.  Genuine contrition is rare.

When caught out, instead of simply holding their hands up and saying “I was wrong. I’m sorry” people often say: “I’m sorry if anyone has been offended by what I said/did…”, or “I misspoke…”, “People have misunderstood. What I meant to say was …”

The inference being that you’re not sorry for what you did – just sorry for being put in a rather awkward situation where you are forced to publicly apologise for saying or doing what you did.  When it comes to apologising, people are more like John Wayne (never apologise) than Benjamin Franklin (no excuses).

A classic recent example was given by motor racing legend Sir Stirling Moss who, in an interview, said he didn’t want a “poofter or anyone like that” to play him if a movie of his life was ever made. Inevitably, he had to issue an apology:

“I’m sorry I’ve caused offence, but I’m disappointed anyone could be so narrow-minded as to take offence. It was not meant to cause any.”

Do you see what he did there? He apologised then immediately insulted anyone that was offended by what he had said.

A far more tangled apology was attempted last week by US singer Michelle Shocked following some anti-gay remarks she made at a concert. Her rambling apology (read The Guardian’s account of it here), saying she had been misunderstood didn’t really stack up against the audio recording of the gig. Her apology therefore only served to dig the hole she’s in even deeper.

A more straightforward but no less puzzling apology was given last week by actor Bill Roache, better known as Ken Barlow, the character he has played in long-running soap Coronation Street for more than 50 years.

As told by the Daily Express online, he seemed to suggest in a television interview in New Zealand that he believed victims of sex abuse were paying the price for actions in “previous lives” and that it was easy for men in the public eye to be “trapped by young groupies.”

As the Express noted, he “quickly backtracked” and apologised:

“I would like to say I am very sorry for any offence caused. I would never say that victims of sexual offences are in any way responsible for the abuse they have suffered and I offer my deepest apologies if anything I have said has been misunderstood in this way.”

But this simply contradicts what he said in the interview – and then offers apologies if what he said had been misunderstood.

The list of high profile apologies is seemingly endless – Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, Kanye West … If you want a definitive catalogue of bad apologies, then I recommend a visit to one of my new favourite blogs – Sorry Watch.

Even the US satirical website The Onion had to apologise last month for an Oscar-night tweet about young actress Quvenzhané Wallis (and it wasn’t about misspelling her name).  I would urge you, however, to read The Onion’s merciless send up of Republican Senate nominee Todd Atkins’ non-apology for his ridiculous comments on abortion last year.

So, the question remains: is it possible to apologise well and salvage your reputation in the process?

One person who seems to have managed it is Jesse Jackson Jr who was accused of conspiracy and fraud earlier this year. In a post on the PRSA-NCC blog, Jonathan Rick deconstructs Jackson’s brilliant apology and offers five ways he (or his lawyer) got it right. My favourite is point number 3: “He doesn’t dance around the elephant. Instead, he walks straight up to it and apologizes, directly and earnestly.”

So, come on – no more dancing round the elephant, guys!





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