October 27, 2016

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

The Public Apology: Make the Most Out of “I’m Sorry”

The Public Apology: Make the Most Out of “I’m Sorry”

We typically consider apologies to be conversations between two people, but apologies play out on a national scale, as well. Celebrities and companies that transgress often release apologetic statements or hold press conferences to convey their sorrow to the general population.

Public apologies have been prominent in the news lately, as the U.S. presidential election shines a spotlight on the topic. With the increased focus on delivering a sincere, effective apology, it is important to understand the components of a successful apology, as well as its significance to PR.

What Makes a Good Apology?

A multitude of studies have been conducted to understand what makes a well-rounded apology. There is no single, definitive definition, but according to Guy Winch, Ph.D, a successful apology should contain five key elements:

  1. A clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement.
  2. An expression of regret for what happened.
  3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
  4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
  5. A request for forgiveness.

This definition is rather comprehensive, but it excludes three important elements. A sincere apology should propose specific solutions to fix the wrongdoing. Additionally, a statement should be delivered as soon as possible after the transgression. The timeliness suggests that the person quickly realized the harm of their actions and felt remorse. Timeliness is especially important to public apologies because taking a long time to apologize can give the impression the statement is being crafted to perfection by a PR team, which does not indicate sincere remorse on behalf of the offending party. It should also be noted that it is important to exclude conditional statements. Conditional statements, like “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” suggest a lack of willingness to take responsibility for transgressions.

Significance of Apologies to PR

At its core, PR aims to maintain positive relationships between a person or company and their audiences. PR professionals who work for brands or celebrities have the task of maintaining the reputation of popular people or companies that exist under the scrutiny of the public eye.

The public apology is one of the most important PR strategies for professionals working with these high profile brands. This tactic is meant to appear genuine and sincere, but these statements typically come straight from the pen of a publicist or PR professionals. In order to maximize sincerity, the wrongdoer and their PR partner should adhere to the above rules of a good apology. Recent examples, specifically from Wells Fargo and Airbnb, illustrate successful and flawed elements.

Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo has recently been the center of a media storm following the revelation that company employees opened up millions of false accounts without customer approval. In the wake of this breaking scandal, CEO and Chairman John Stumpf appeared before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to apologize. In his prepared remarks, he stated,

“I am deeply sorry that we failed to fulfill our responsibility to our customers, to our team members, and to the American public. I want to apologize for violating the trust our customers have invested in Wells Fargo. And I want to apologize for not doing more sooner to address the causes of this unacceptable activity.”

In this statement, Stumpf achieves certain elements of a successful apology. Specifically, he issues a clear statement of sorrow, acknowledges that social norms were violated, and discusses actions taken to reduce the chance of future fraudulent activity. The apology does, however, lack necessary elements.

He admits that his company did not respond quickly enough, but this statement is a misrepresentation of the issue’s timeline. The opening of false accounts began occurring as early as 2009, so the apology came nearly seven years after this practice reportedly began, which makes the sentiment seem too little, too late. Although Stumpf outlines precautions and protocol enacted to minimize the risk of future fraudulent activity, his personal actions have been criticized.

Some members of the Senate Committee, like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), criticized his termination of more than 5,000 branch-level employees and alleged failure to fire any senior executives. Warren called for him to step down from his position and be subject to a criminal investigation. Despite Stumpf’s willingness to admit fault, issue an apology, and offer examples of precautions to monitor fraud, his statement lacks the timeliness and proactive action that would have rendered the statement truly successful.


Airbnb, a rental website the allows homeowners and travelers to connect, ran into trouble after concerning crisis management tactics. In 2011, a customer reported that her apartment, which she had rented through Airbnb, had been vandalized by her tenant. In a blog post, EJ, the owner of the apartment, stated that her houseguest stole cash, jewelry, and electronics, covered her kitchen in powdered bleach, burned her belongings in her fireplace, and potentially photocopied personal identification documents.

Airbnb CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky responded to the situation with a written apology on the company’s blog. Chesky stated,

“We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up…There have been a lot of questions swirling around, and I would like to apologize and set the record straight in my own words.”

He goes on to announce plans to expand the company’s customer service team, which would allow struggling customers to reach a company helpline sooner and with more ease. His statement also announced the company’s plans to launch a $50,000 Airbnb Guarantee to provide protection and insurance for a host’s possessions. The service was retroactively made available to EJ, as well as other past users affected by crimes from renters.

Similar to Wells Fargo, Airbnb exhibits both effective and flawed qualities of an apology. Although not on the same scale as Wells Fargo, Airbnb failed to craft an appropriate response in a timely matter; it took the company approximately a month after the vandalizing to say sorry and offer avenues for help.

Chesky did, however, address his poor time management and accepted responsibility for the company’s shortcoming in handling the cases of the victims. Additionally, he offered viable solutions to compensate affected customers and to provide greater customer service in future crises.

What Can We Learn from The Public Apology?

Delivering a universally accepted apology seems nearly impossible because they require specific elements and delivery to convey sincere regret. Despite the inherent difficulty of this practice, their potential for solving issues makes them a valuable PR tool. Constructing a timely apology with the correct factors, specifically a statement of sorrow, an acknowledgement of responsibility, and a concrete plan to remedy actions, can restore a tarnished reputation.

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About The Author


Jordan Gosselin recently began her career in marketing and communication with CARMA. Her experience includes social and digital work, creative content production, and marketing operations.

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