The lost art of the Apology. Don’t spin it.


A feature of life in the age of social media is that one’s mistakes never actually go away. We saw that this week when a widely published 2006 article with the Abercrombie & Fitch CEO was dragged back, seven years later and used to hit that same CEO around the head. Yesterday he issued an apology for making exclusionist remarks in 2006 about trying to target only the cool kidss.

There were three responses to the apology. In order of ascending size here they are:

1) A retweet – basically saying “yay – he’s finally apologised.” Very few of these.

2) A criticism that the apology was half-hearted at best, and insincere. A few of these.

3) Ignore the apology. Widespread.

In balance you’d have to say that the apology did stuff-all good for the firm. Today there are still masses of protests about the initial remarks and the protest will continue to run on its own momentum for a few more days. It was already slowing down when the apology was published.

My first of two questions are this. Why did a public, so heated about the initial comments, not bother to find, read and retweet the apology? The answer i think is that they didn’t want to. The protest was a chance to vent against a brand they don’t like, and they weren’t interested, actually, in any kind of closure. The hatred circuit remains open.

The second question: why did the apology gain such a tepid critical response from among those few who reported it? Well, let’s dissect the apology. Here it is: the full statement.

“I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.”

The first problem with the apology is the medium. For sure, A&F were getting bagged on Facebook, but this was not where the majority of the conversation was taking place. So the apology was somewhat remote. Metaphorically, no eye contact was made.

The distancing gambit. “While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context…” has all the hallmarks of the distancing strategy. Instead of facing up to criticism the public can here the familiar “I was taken out of context…” line used by politicians all too frequently. The subtext: ‘it wasn’t me…don’t blame me.”  This is not the gutsy, “okay, I screwed up” mea culpa that people are asking for.

“I sincerely regret my choice of words…”  More distancing. He in no way regrets his sentiment, that he wants his brand to be worn only by skinny cool kids. So he tries re-framing that objective as  “…we’ve always had an aspirational brand.”

Finally he turns up the national anthem and pledges his allegiance to our shared values. “…we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity…”  This comes over as insincere simply because he was so blunt in the first place about his target market.

Now this blog didn’t set out to attack the CEO.  Rather, I wanted a typical exampled of a failed apology.  For surely to apologise and be met with 87% utter silence, 10% derision and 3% acceptance (my estimates based on twitter traffic) is not a successful PR move.  Rather than cut a firewall through the blazing criticism, the apology has merely thrown a damp sponge at the heart of the fire.

In my view it would have been better NOT to apologise if, as it seems, the firm is intractably committed to serving the young, the skinny and the beautiful.

But if an apology is on offer – and it wants to assuage the public thirst for blood – then it needs to follow certain rules.

Never ruin an apology with an excuse.
― Benjamin Franklin

Nixon’s grand mistake was his failure to understand that Americans are forgiving, and if he had admitted error early and apologized to the country, he would have escaped.

– Bob Woodward

These two quotes sum up the essence of a good credible apology. It should come quickly and be offered without qualification. If you’re sorry, then be sorry – don’t process the apology, don’t spin it, or try and mitigate the thing you did wrong. Every single step that you take to minimise the pain, or distance yourself from it, or to wriggle out of culpability is going to be spotted immediately as insincerity.

Here are four things to avoid.

  1. Distancing. Either through tone (third person..”mistakes were made, people may have been hurt…”) or through blaming others. “In our group’s exuberance, some of us got carried away…”  (Blame the group.)
  2. Attack those hurt. “I’m sorry if some of you took offense at my joke…”
  3. Deflection. Apologising in advance (“I apologise if any of you get offended by my next statement about women…”  or apologising for something else: “I’m sorry for the hurt I did to that child…if I’m guilty, then it’s guilty of enjoying boisterous play.”
  4. Abbreviated Apologies – used in the context of other statements. “I hurt people and I apologise…but I’d like to restate my commitment to seeking the truth.”  Blink and you miss these.

At the heart of the decision to apologise – or not – is the issue of courage. You either have the courage to do things that offend others (presumably to serve a greater good,) or you have the courage to admit you were wrong. Today’s plethora of half-hearted apologies try to straddle both, and end up failing to do their job.

A good apology should simply be honest. Don’t delay it, or spin it.

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