What the worst apologies of the year can teach businesses

Inc. Magazine

Call 2017 the year of public apologies. Companies, leaders, celebrities and athletes had to issue mea culpas for mistakes and missteps all year long.

Some of those apologies were better than others. A handful of them were particularly egregious.

There were three main types of horrible apologies that dominated 2017. Here they are, along with the reasons why they were so bad. Avoid these mistakes if you or your company must apologize and make amends this year.

1. Tried to change the topic

Unsurprisingly, three of the worst apologies of the year stemmed from high-profile sexual harassment and abuse allegations involving film producer Harvey Weinstein, chef Mario Batali and actor Kevin Spacey.

Weinstein, in a rambling and somewhat confusing statement sent to The New York Times, never explicitly acknowledged what he was apologizing for. Instead, he misquoted rapper Jay-Z and announced he’d be funneling his anger and resources toward taking down the National Rifle Association. It was a mess.

Batali got flippant with his apology. He called the sexual misconduct accusations leveled against him “mistakes.” At the end, he wrote: “ps. in case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.” Not the time nor the place for a recipe.

Spacey’s apology seemed the most intentionally disingenuous. In a statement released on Twitter, he quickly pivoted from discussing his alleged sexual advance toward actor Anthony Rapp when Rapp was 14 to coming out as gay — which seemed to be an attempt to distract from the issue at hand.

When you’re apologizing, don’t try to change the subject, because people likely will see right through it. Be clear about your transgressions, apologize sincerely (none of that “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” nonsense) and assert that it won’t happen again.

2. Tried to minimize the blame

Remember Fyre Festival? Back in April, the music festival in the Bahamas co-created by rapper Ja Rule turned out to be an unmitigated catastrophe. Fans paid thousands of dollars to land in what one attendee called a “disaster tent city.”

Rule immediately took to Twitter and made one crucial misstep in an otherwise sincere apology. “NOT MY FAULT,” he wrote in all caps.

That may end up proving true. Both Rule and his ex-partner, Billy McFarland, have been sued, but only McFarland has been arrested on charges of wire fraud and making false statements, to which he pleaded not guilty. In the context of Rule’s apology, though, it doesn’t matter. When you’re doing damage control mid-crisis, it’s not the time to play the blame game.

Sen. Al Franken did something similar when information about the way he behaved toward journalist Leeann Tweeden became public information in November. His initial response included this sentence: “I certainly don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann.”

Franken’s first instinct was to cast doubt on the story, despite photographic evidence of him apparently groping a sleeping Tweeden and her detailed account of what transpired during a rehearsal for a USO show. He later released a stronger apology, but the damage was done.

Own up to your mistakes. Otherwise, it’s as though you haven’t apologized at all.

3. Waited too long to make a sincere apology

United Airlines committed the sin of making a terrible initial statement about a dramatic and disturbing scene before finally following up with something better after a firestorm of criticism.

Security guards forcibly removed Dr. David Dao from an overbooked plane in April. United CEO Oscar Munoz offered this response to Dao and others removed from the flight: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate those customers.”

A full day later, he released an updated statement on Twitter, taking responsibility and calling the event “truly horrific.” It would have been a fine sentiment, if not for the time gap between his first response and the one presumably written by his PR team.

Cam Newton, quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, did the same thing after laughing at a female reporter for asking a question at a press conference in October. “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” Newton said from the podium.

The reporter, Jourdan Rodrigue, found Newton after the news conference and gave him a chance to apologize. She said he didn’t.

Four days later, Newton called a press conference to apologize, and again, his words would have been perfect if they had come right away, not days after receiving a ton of blowback.

By the way, Rodrigue herself issued an apology after it came to light that she had posted tweets with racist overtones about four years ago. One of the since-deleted tweets contained a racial slur.

“I apologize for the offensive tweets from my Twitter account,” Rodrigue said. “There is no excuse for these tweets and the sentiment behind them. I am deeply sorry and apologize.”

If you know you’ve done something wrong, apologize immediately and from the heart. Waiting to compose the perfect response will make you sound inauthentic, and that’s barely better than not apologizing at all.

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