Apologies without action ring false

I don't know about you, but I'm currently suffering from what can only be described as "Apology Fatigue."

I don't know about you, but I'm currently suffering from what can only be described as “Apology Fatigue.” It seems as though with each new day, someone is going public and apologizing about something they've done or said. I've reached my limit.

You could say that my apology ‘cup' runneth over. Most Americans, though, can't get enough of celebrity or high-stakes apologies.

So, what does all of this have to do with the practice of public affairs and PR? Plenty.

From a cynic's point of view, the surefire PR formula for rehabilitating oneself in a compromising or adverse situation is this: admit responsibility as soon as possible (preferably on national television); be contrite; ask for forgiveness; and commit to doing something or entering some sort of program to remediate the situation. Break any of the rules of the formula at your own peril.

Over the past year or so, we've witnessed countless acknowledgments of trespass, followed by equally theatrical expressions of remorse. From Tiger to Toyota, Letterman to Larry Craig, our new national pastime is the public confessional followed by profuse apologies. (And add a stint in rehab for good measure.)

My disgust with most of these instances is directly proportional to the audaciousness of the oral and verbal gymnastics that follow most of these so-called “apologies,” which render the mea culpa virtually meaningless.

There are so many recent examples. During the debate over the passage of the healthcare bill a few weeks ago, one Congressman uttered “baby-killer” while another member was speaking from the rostrum. Very collegial. He later issued an apology and did the rounds on the cable shows to plead forgiveness for his heat-of-the-moment remark. 

The latest one to put me over the edge came just this week. Former Citigroup CEO Charles “Chuck” Prince and executive committee chair Robert Rubin testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) to answer questions about all those pesky sub-prime mortgages their bank held, as well as to explain their company's role in helping cause that whole global economic meltdown thing.

“Let me start by saying I'm sorry,” Prince began in his testimony. A good beginning. But then Prince and Rubin spent the remainder of the three-hour hearing deconstructing and qualifying their apology to the point that their “apology” was nothing of the kind.

So, in the end, it's not what you say, or even how you say it. It's what you really mean when you say it. Phil Angelides, chair of the FCIC who served as chief inquisitor of Rubin and Prince yesterday, summarized the issue nicely when he said, “I'm not so sure apologies are as important as assessment of responsibility.”

As the Elton John song goes, “ ‘Sorry' seems to be the hardest word.” How true.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC, area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: tappan@tappan.org.

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