The Art of the Apology

Ali McGraw seemed so sure of herself, so confident when she told Ryan O'Neal in "Love Story," that love means never having to say you're sorry. That's so 70's.  With so much instant media chatter occuring these days, "apology etiquette" has become an important public relations tool.  There's an art to apologizing and like art, most of us don't know much about it, but we know what we like....and don't like. 

Unlike in a court of law, the rules in the court of public opinion are loose and are fluid.  Most of the time, the best rule to follow when trying to repair a messy public embarrassment is to keep it simple. Just say, "I'm sorry."

Otherwise, the issue becomes unnecessarily complicated, mangled and ultimately ineffective. 

Recently, The View hostess, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, demonstrated a fine example of a less than satisifying apology. Hasselbeck's public pursuit of forgiveness came after comments she made about ESPN sports reporter Erin Andrews' skimpy costumes on Dancing With the Stars where she is a competitor.

After noting that Andrews had endured -- as Hasselbeck characterized it -- a peeper, she added that the man who was actually convicted of stalking Andrews, could have saved himself a lot of trouble had he just watched her on DWTS where Andrews was wearing "next to nothing." Based on her prelude to her insensitive comments, Hasselbeck's comments were not impromptu, and therefore sounded mean-spirited as she put responsibilty on Andrews, the victim of a terrible crime.

Both mainstream and entertainment news media  jumped and immediately flooded the world about Hasselbeck's new case of foot-in-mouth disease. The next day on her show, she offered her apology.  But instead of a simple, "I'm so sorry for what I said," she equivocated presumably to diminish her missteps and the negative attention that surrounded her.

Here's the issue: Instead of just saying she was sorry, Hasselbeck presented a lengthy conversation with her five-year-old daughter, quoted from a bible devotional and then said she promised her child she would "...try to use my words more mindfully, like I try to do..."

She also said that "even though I was focused on the detestable criminal" behavior of the stalker, she knew she had hurt someone's feelings. Had she really been focused on the "detestable behavior" of Andrews' stalker instead of Andrews' costumes, Hasselbeck probably wouldn't have brought the issue up in the first place and put herself in the embarrassing situation of having to apologize publicly. 

Mistakes and poor judgment happen. And when you have customers, clients, fans and you want to preserve your strong public image, it can be painful. But it's important to do so properly and with integrity. It's hard. But you fool no one when you begin throwing up shields such as the Bible, your children or swearing on your parents' graves. These are distractions, they're obvious and they further erode your credibility. They also are not forgotten.  That can cost you and your business.

Ali McGraw was wrong. If you love your reputation, then just say you're sorry and leave it at that.