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How has apologising become so damned contentious?

How has apologising become so damned contentious?

by Tony Jaques, Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, for people who work in issue and crisis management

Gay Pride football jerseys. Splendour in the Grass. Will Smith. Whoopi Goldberg. When and how to apologise has always been a challenge. But new media demands and expectations – sometimes aided by arrogance and poor judgement – are making it harder to do the right thing and avoid further controversy.

Apologising has become increasingly controversial in the media

Two recent incidents highlight that even seemingly well-intentioned apologies can be criticised by media which thrive on outrage and unwillingness to be satisfied.

When some footballers at the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles refused to wear a Gay Pride jersey the public outcry was predictable. Yet so much of the coverage was about micro-analysing the apology by coach Des Hasler rather than the complex issues behind the player refusal. Even the NRL’s own official website wrote: “’Significant mistake’: Hasler makes wide-ranging apology over jersey handling.”

Similarly, when the Splendour in the Grass music festival at Byron Bay turned in a disastrous mud bath, so much media focus was on the adequacy or otherwise of the organisers’ apologies rather than the undoubted challenges of managing a weather-plagued event. The headline on typified that tone: “Splendour in the Grass organisers issue second grovelling apology after festival turns to chaos”.

Shortly afterwards came Will Smith’s long-delayed video apology for his infamous assault at the Oscars in March. But here too the focus was largely on the public’s assessment rather than the apology itself. The New Daily, for example, was in no doubt about what they thought was most important: “Road to redemption? Jury still out on Will Smith’s career after ‘slap’ apology.”

The challenges of apologising

Apologising has long been a challenge, but there now seems to be a growing belief that the key purpose of an apology is to satisfy the mob. And even that the mob decides when an apology is necessary.

Take the case in May when the solution to the daily online word game “Wordle” was FETUS. Some people may have felt it was insensitive. But was it necessary for the New York Times to issue a formal apology?

Or consider when the Director at France’s Atomic Energy Commission posted a picture earlier this month purportedly showing Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun. It was in fact a closeup of a slice of chorizo sausage, which he described it as “a scientist’s joke”. Yet when some Twitter users claimed it was inappropriate, he said he “had no choice but to apologise.”

He did of course have a choice. It’s all too true that people accused of unacceptable comments or behaviour will often try to defend themselves by saying “it was a joke”. But this clearly was a joke. Did it actually warrant an apology?

When is it considered a good apology and when is it a considered a bad apology?

Sadly, when an apology truly is warranted, so many people still persist with attempting the “non-apology”. The year started badly when Whoopi Goldberg was briefly suspended from her TV talk show after she argued that the Holocaust was not the result of racism. In the face of a social media firestorm she said: “I don’t want to fake apologise. I am very upset that people misunderstood what I was saying.”

As the celebrity website headlined their report: “Whoopi Goldberg says something dumb, apologises, then doubles down.”

Blaming others for misunderstanding is one of those classic non-apologies, along with “I’m sorry if you were upset” and “Mistakes were made” and “This is not who we are”.

But a new inductee into the Non-Apology Hall of Shame would have to be conspiracist Alex Jones after being ordered to pay millions to the family of one of the child victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting. He had spent ten years claiming it was a hoax and now says: “I admit I made a mistake. I admit I followed disinformation. But not on purpose. I apologise to the families. What I did to the families was wrong. But I didn’t do it on purpose.”

You didn’t do it on purpose? Really? Nice try Mr. Jones. Take a bow.


A Parting Thought

It is a good rule in life never to apologise.

The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take mean advantage of them.

– P. G. Wodehouse


Tony Jaques is Director of Issue Outcomes Pty Ltd, for people who work in issue and crisis management 

Learn more about Reputation Risk, CEO apologies, and Crisis communication in Tony Jaques’ new book, Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.tony-jaques-rothstein-publishing

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