How to make a public apology

We are having an epidemic of politicians, corporations, and celebrities from all spheres of activity having information revealed about their bad behavior. When the evidence is incontrovertible, there arises the question of what kind of apology is required and what amends should be made. Lisa Leopold suggests some guidelines and says that in order to be effective, the apology should consist of three elements.

The first is to actually say you are sorry.

This may seem obvious but sadly isn’t: Any respectable apology must include an actual apology with a specific acknowledgment of what was done. Surprisingly, some people attempting to own up to something never get around to actually apologizing.

Comedian Louis C.K., for example, never actually used words like “apologize” or “sorry” after being accused of sexual misconduct by several women. He called the stories “true” and said he was “remorseful” but dodged the actual apology.

Others try to apologize in a general way to avoid being pinned down to a specific transgression, weakening the impact.

The second is to personally accept responsibility and not spread it around

Amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used the passive voice to distance himself from any wrongdoing: “I’m really sorry that this happened,” he said in an interview to CNN.

Another example is Charlie Rose, a television journalist fired by CBSfollowing accusations of sexual misconduct. He issued an apology in the following manner: “I have learned a great deal as a result of these events, and I hope others will too. All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.”

By including himself as one of several people and embedding his actions as part of a broader group’s actions, he minimized responsibility for his own transgressions.

The third is to acknowledge that you realize that you actually did cause harm.

Many so-called apologies fail to acknowledge victims’ feelings, focusing instead on justifications or excuses. For example, actor Henry Cavill apologized for his controversial statements about the #MeToo movement by saying he’s sorry for “any confusion and misunderstanding that” his comments created. In doing so, he insinuated that there was no transgressor or victim, as more than one party is typically to blame for a misunderstanding.

Leopold suggests that as new transgressions are revealed (and you can be sure there will be), we look at future apologies through the lens of these three criteria to see if they meet the standard for genuine contrition.


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