There’s No Such Thing as an Effective Apology Anymore

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the PRNEWS staff. We invite opposing essays from readers.]

It’s time to quit pretending that an effective apology is a PR tactic. Yes, apologize if you have a fight with your spouse or a family member.

In the PR world, every week we see how some public figures and organizations get bad advice from misguided PR pros. Communicators advise CEOs to apologize to win favor with, or at least appease, the very people who have absolutely no intention of accepting that apology.

The cold reality is that if critics are trying to ruin you, they don’t care how sincere your apology is. The Sincere Apology Strategy often is the fast-track to ruin.

For an apology to work, the apologist’s sincerity is half the equation. The other party must be willing to forgive.

Survival is the End Game

When you’re under attack, in the end, all that matters is your survival. To survive, recognize bullies for who they are and what they intend to accomplish. There’s almost no scenario where apologizing ends well for you.

While it helps to be 100 percent in the right, even if you or your organization have done something bad, you can’t build your primary response around an apology.

On the other hand, when you’ve done something wrong take corrective action asap. Communicate, be transparent and accountable.

But let’s focus on the apology. If your apology is the primary focus, you’re giving red meat to people who have every intention of ending you or killing your business.

An apology validates their attacks. It paints the attackers as heroes, and you as the villain.

If you’re faced with such a situation and PR tells you to practice realpolitik and apologize as a means to appease your critics, get a new PR advisor.

In addition, make sure you are willing to stand up for yourself. The best crisis communicator cannot fight for those who won’t fight for themselves.

The Cancellation Playbook

The attack playbook goes like this:

  • Critics select you as their target
  • Organize alliances with experts and interests that share a desire to see you destroyed
  • Claim offense for something you did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say
  • Make baseless allegations with just enough truth in them to possess an element of believability

This is when your PR intern tells you to apologize. Don’t listen. It’s just the beginning.

 They Accuse You of ‘Misinformation’

Next, your critics organize a social media storm, often alleging misinformation. This is relatively new.

Not long ago, attackers would have alleged hate speech. Cancel-mob bullies have found hate speech is too restrictive. They’d have to prove your speech actually was hateful.

Misinformation works better because it’s a lukewarm term that can mean anything to anyone.

When you accuse someone of misinformation you don’t have to prove anything. You can be the deceiver. The allegation of misinformation is all the evidence needed that the target is bad, evil, perhaps even criminal, and, most certainly, deserving of ruin.

This is when a PR executive tells you to apologize. Don’t listen. If you do, you’ll hasten your defeat.

Facing ‘Shock and Awe’

If you survive the first two rounds of cancellation, your critics will amass a broader front. They will enlist academics, special interests, celebrities, politicians and certain media members to smear and shame you. They will go to the social media hierarchy and appeal to sympathetic and not uncommonly biased ‘fact-checkers.’

Note that all of this can and will happen with no basis in fact or wrongdoing on your part. Whatever narrative your critics can imagine to destroy you, they will.

Attackers will denounce you and deem the act of not denouncing you a crime unto itself. They will pressure people into distancing themselves from you.

By now, the narrative is fleshed out. Academics will say they are worried about the dangers you pose. The public is told it must know all of this is for its own safety and protection.

Newsrooms will receive the sanctioned narrative. They are expected to agree with it, or at least, obey it. No deviations tolerated.

This is when a senior PR executive tells you to apologize. Don’t listen. If you do, your carcass will swing from the gallows in the court of public opinion. It will serve as an example for others not to be like you. 

Going for Broke

If you’ve held strong to this point, your critics will go after your sources of strength, power and revenue. They will target your customers, members and donors. They will target people who consume your content, allies and partners.

You can’t communicate if the news media won’t talk to you. You can’t get out your message when social platforms censor your content or de-platform you. As an organization you can’t function if critics successfully lobby your e-commerce sites or pressure banks to drop you.

They don’t need facts. All they need is the seriousness of the allegations to taint you.

This is when a PR VP tells you to apologize. Don’t listen. You’re on the cusp of victory.

Don’t Surrender

Your strategy has to be as blunt as a fist to the face.

Don’t give in. The sooner your attackers understand you will not surrender, the weaker their attacks become. You have to commit to this from the outset, and make sure everyone in the organization is united. Any break in the ranks will serve up your destruction.

There will be no apology. You don’t need to make the issue of whether or not to apologize a public discussion. Just don’t apologize and make it obvious you have no plans to do so.

Later, when the heat dies down and the imminent risks of the situation have passed, you can and should reflect. At that point, you will have time and space to acknowledge what you could have done differently. Perhaps you will make changes.

No Weakness in Battle

But in the heat of battle, under siege, is not time to show weakness in the face of possible ruination.

Let people know you are aware of the attacks. Make them a rallying point for your supporters. Let everyone know that you will not let the attacks destroy what so many have worked so hard to build. Stay on mission and focused. Don’t get rattled.

Depending on the situation’s complexity, the peak period of the crisis may last from 48 hours to two weeks. At that point, your critics may move on or regroup and come at you from a different angle, but the process is the same. If you hold fast, they can’t ruin you.

The goal is to get through each set of onslaughts without giving the bullies what they demand: apologies and concessions. You must make it clear they are not in control. You are. That’s how you survive and win.

This is when the president of your PR firm wants to take credit for your resolve and asks if his firm can submit your project for industry awards. Don’t do it. PR awards for crisis communication projects open old wounds. Let the wounds heal and move forward.

Tim O’Brien is founder and principal of O’Brien Communications