How to Apologize Effectively
The art of apology requires recognition, regret, and remorse.
Posted May 30, 2018
With a tweet, Roseanne Barr has been charged, convicted, and sentenced by her own words in the court of public opinion. Despite high ratings, ABC announced that "Roseanne's Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show."[i] Roseanne quickly apologized to the target of her Tweet, Valerie Jarrett, and to America. But the damage was done.
As we have seen in similar instances, Roseanne´s case moved from the offense to the sentencing phase, with the introduction of circumstances in mitigation. According to Today.com, Roseanne blamed her poor judgment partially on “Ambien tweeting” at 2am. She also issued a formal statement of apology, in which she expressed regret, acknowledged the damage she caused to her co-workers, and asked for forgiveness.[ii]
But the formal apology did not stand alone. Today.com noted that Roseanne also continued to retweet content from her supporters and defenders. According to apology research, this inconsistent method of damage control may hinder Roseanne´s attempt to salvage her reputation and regain public trust.
The Evolution of Apologies
For most authentic transgressors, “I´m sorry” is just the beginning. Apologies often evolve from the superficial to the significant—as initial attempts to mend fences sometimes cause even more destruction. Many transgressors, particularly within the court of public opinion where apologetic statements generate constant feedback, build upon initial declarations with expanding commentary acknowledging the wrongfulness of their conduct and the impact of their behavior, coupled with authentic expressions of contrition.
Is this process different when the offender is a celebrity? Statements of famous people are certainly scrutinized more carefully due to their high profile. And let us not forget that many public figures are role models, whether they intend to be or not. Consequently, their offenses are met with disillusionment, as well as disappointment.
Roseanne is certainly not the only celebrity to have fallen from grace through a tweet. But now that the damage has been done, will we forgive her?
Sure, we might forget, as other celebrities steal the spotlight with gaffes of their own. But whether we forgive Roseanne in large part depends on her, and the way she continues to cultivate her apology.
Essential Elements of Apology
David P. Boyd, in "Art and Artifice in Public Apologies” (2011), identified seven component parts to an apology: revelation, recognition, responsiveness, responsibility, remorse, restitution, and reform.[iii] He tested his hypotheses by analyzing apologies by well-known public figures.
Boyd notes the power of simply saying “I´m sorry,” an expression that can smooth the road to recovery as part of a successful strategy of damage control. But when the stakes are high and the consequences are great, he notes that an apology cannot be short and sweet. He explains that effective apologies demonstrate respect for the victim, often through acknowledging the impact of the offender´s behavior, and showing empathy.
Timing matters as well. Boyd notes that quick apologies may help with initial clean up efforts, but also might deprive someone who has been wronged with the chance to express negative emotions. His research suggests that perhaps effective apologies have a strategic sweet spot, which permits both victims and offenders to share feelings and emotions.
For Effective Messages, Emotions Matter
Being truly sorry is different than being sorry you offended someone, or sorry you got caught. When it comes to apologetic messaging, Boyd concludes that expressing remorse may be more effective than expressing regret because remorse implies an acceptance of the wrongfulness of the behavior at issue, which is less likely to be repeated.
He also notes the value of humility, as well as suffering through shame—which is often meaningful to victims. And for people who refuse to apologize for fear of being perceived as weak, Boyd´s research provides a measure of good news: apologizing actually fosters a perception of transformational leadership.
When the Offender is a Celebrity: The Art of Public Apology
Cerulo and Ruane in “Apologies of the Rich and Famous” (2014) note that many celebrities restore their image through public apologies—which they describe as both media events and persuasive messages.[iv] They describe apologies as stories, which include expressed regret for failure, explanations for poor choices, and assurances that mistakes will not be repeated. They also note, however, that public forgiveness is not automatic; it depends on messaging, identity, and relational dynamics.
What type of apology might work for Roseanne? Perhaps one that truly demonstrates an unequivocal acceptance of guilt, comprehension of the wrongfulness of her behavior, and commitment to change. This type of apology would be a good start, although it is questionable whether it can be accomplished on Twitter. And of course, whether she can regain public trust is another matter entirely.
[iii]David P. Boyd, ”Art and Artifice in Public Apologies,” Journal of Business EthicsVol. 104 (2011): 299-309.
[iv]Karen A. Cerulo and Janet M. Ruane, “Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive,” Social Psychology Quarterly Vol. 77, No. 2 (2014): 123-149.