Apologising for all the apologies 23 January 2013

It has been axiomatic in public relations that timely and appropriate apologies are a critical part of issues and crisis management. But, what if the apologies get out of hand, end up doing even more damage and are just inappropriate?

Tony Jaques regular Managing Outcomes e-newsletter (http://managingoutcomes.wordpress.com/ ) asked earlier this month if  “bad apologies damage issues and damage reputations” ; and, Lance Armstrong’s  Oprah appearance has seemingly raised almost as many questions about the apology strategy as it has about what Armstrong did wrong.

Jaques says 2012 was ‘a bumper year for apologies’,  and cites Fortune and the Christian Science Monitor on the skyrocketing number of US apologies and their slumping quality. In Australia, we had the Jones non-apology to Julia Gillard and his grudgingly lawyered apology over the Cronulla riots, and now we have the Armstrong effort.

Armstrong’s strategy was obvious – appeal over the heads of critics to the general American public through the Oprah program; build a platform of public support; and, leverage that platform to address critics in the general media and the cycling industry – but how successful it is  – that’s another question. In the US, with strong religious and evangelical traditions, confessions and apologies can work well because convenient pastors can be found to offer forgiveness of behalf of God. Bill Clinton used this strategy very effectively. The Catholic Church also thought, it appears, that for child abusers confession and penance did the job and certainly justified it to themselves on the grounds that this is what they believe. However, to the rest of us this seemed a secret and very inadequate response which was just part of a massive cover-up.

Clinton apparently didn’t use exotic substances (if you don’t count the cigars) as Armstrong did even if he did cheat and lie a bit. Clinton seems to have been largely forgiven and is now one of the most-loved US politicians. Armstrong, on the other hand, cheated and lied on a much larger scale and was probably never really loved much even though his wins and cancer recovery were said to be inspirational to many. His apology effort – very cool, very arrogant – had none of the Clinton warmth. Indeed, it seems he was sorrier that he got caught and sorrier that he had to apologise as part of a PR strategy than anything else.

Armstrong’s problem is also inextricably bound up with the problems of the cycling industry (it seems inappropriate at present to describe it as a sport) as a whole and its endemic drug scandals. Those in the industry who didn’t cheat understandably feel very bitter and are unlikely to forgive. Those who just follow it as sport must also feel cheated; and, who knows what those middle-aged Lycra-clad men who crowd you off roads and walking tracks think. All in all it would be brave to try to predict what the Armstrong apology outcome might be.

Indeed, for all our heroes and our leaders how apologies are received is ultimately determined by how the individuals apologising are regarded in the first place; how serious their offence was; what their achievements are; and, the context of what they are apologising for.

The Armstrong revelations are hardly the end of an innocent age in cycling unlike when the White Sox 1919 World Series fix conspirators betrayed the trust of fans. They were probably never forgiven by many fans and even current fans’ feelings are strong almost a century later.

Contexts are also changing, we live in different times and cultures are different. Arianna Stasinopoulos (now Huffington) wrote a biography of Picasso condemning him for being awful to women. The response of most art-lovers is so what, but nobody would have thought of asking for an apology from Picasso. From a similar era Ford Madox Ford had an interesting love life and today his books are being made into TV series with no-one urging the public to boycott them, unlike the films of Mel Gibson who has had an interesting love life plus interesting political and religious views. Whatever you think of Shane Warne’s indiscretions off the cricket field he will always be regarded as one of the greatest bowlers cricket has yet produced and admired and respected for that. Chatting to a French friend during the Clinton controversy he was astonished by the uproar and compared it the French response to the Mitterrand love life. Strangely the US was once the same when it came to the Eisenhower, FDR and Kennedy extra-marital relations.

Meanwhile, even if some apologies are as Jaques says, “insincere or ill-conceived or came only after legal threats” they are still the best available issues and crisis strategy. As the Fortune article Jaques cites says: “Next time you are clearly in the wrong, take a deep breath, put aside your self-justification, your excuses, your blame, your defensiveness, and simply apologise.”