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January 04, 2013

Media Tip: The Right Way to Apologize

A guest post from Brad Phillips, author of The Media Training Bible.

You've made a mistake. Fair enough. It happens.

But far too many politicians and public officials are reluctant to issue a full and unequivocal apology after making a mistake. That's not because they're bad or uncaring people. More commonly, it's a human reaction from a defensive person who feels that his or her well-intentioned motives were misunderstood.

As a result, the spokesperson usually issues a hedged "half apology" that goes something like this: "If you were offended by what I said, then I am sorry."

That type of "if/then" apology, which places the burden on the offended person rather than on the offender, has become an epidemic in public communications. And it rarely works. It tends to inflame a crisis instead of ending it, extend the news cycle, and allow more negative public sentiment to fester. As a result, the person is usually forced to issue a second, more complete apology several days later:

"I said something offensive, and I apologize. I listened carefully to your feedback and completely understand your reaction. I will learn from my mistake to make sure it doesn't happen again. I sincerely apologize."

That's much better, but by waiting several days to issue that second apology, the person will unnecessarily suffer additional damage and diminish the impact of his second apology. You're usually better off skipping the first apology entirely and beginning with the second one instead.

The best apologies offer no excuses and pledge specific action to ensure the mistake never happens again. As an example, MSNBC host Chris Matthews apologized the right way in November after saying, "I'm so glad we had [Hurricane Sandy] last week."

Although Mr. Matthews's apology may be more dramatic than is usually necessary, it contains many of the right ingredients: an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, a credible explanation demonstrating that he understood why people were upset with him, and a sincere pledge to make it right.


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