Heartfelt, grudging or unreserved: The PR apologies of 2019

When it comes to the business of owning up to mistakes or bad behaviour, there are many ways of expressing regret - but some more genuine and heartfelt than others.

Some of the individuals and organisations embroiled in controversy in 2019
Some of the individuals and organisations embroiled in controversy in 2019

Sorry is a word that is easy (for some) to say, but harder to mean. PRWeek looks at some of the notable public acts of contrition from the past year, as well as Prince Andrew's remarkably unapologetic performance on the BBC's Newsnight last month.

'Heartfelt apology'



The British Medical Association was on the defensive after it emerged that women doctors had suffered from sexism and harassment within the BMA's GP committee.

The row prompted BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul to state: "I want to say I'm sorry to them, and offer my heartfelt apologies on behalf of the whole association."

He promised that the medical body would not tolerate "sexist, disrespectful, discriminatory and abusive behaviour" and that an "urgent investigation" would take place.

Committee members Dr Zoe Norris and Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer remarked: "While we appreciate Chaand's public willingness to acknowledge and tackle this behaviour, there now needs to be some serious reflection inside the BMA."

In a joint statement, they added: "The proof will be in its actions… and needs to be owned by the whole BMA, and not simply a token gesture."

Saying sorry, sort of



Danny Baker hit the headlines in May, when his use of a chimpanzee to mock the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s newborn son Archie fell spectacularly flat. Baker had tweeted a picture of a couple walking with a chimpanzee in a suit, with the comment: "Royal baby leaves hospital."

Amid a furious response on social media, with Baker accused of making a "racist" joke, the presenter was sacked by the BBC, where he presented a Saturday morning show on BBC 5 Live.

His initial response to the controversy fell far short of an unqualified apology, with Baker tweeting: "Sorry my gag pic of the little fella in the posh outfit has whipped some up. Never occurred to me because well, mind not diseased. Soon as those good enough to point out it's possible connotations got in touch, down it came."

In an interview on LBC, Baker defended the tweet as a "joke about class".

Eventually, two days after the offending tweet, he posted another in which he said: "Following one of the worst days of my life I just want to formally apologise for the outrage I caused and explain how I got myself into this mess. I chose the wrong photo to illustrate a joke. Disastrously so."

Anonymous apologist



A member of staff at Teneo who got drunk and proceeded to vomit over the firm’s carpet was suitably apologetic, but their remorse did not calm the anger of chief executive Gordon Tempest-Hay (pictured above).

In an email to staff, leaked to The Times earlier this year, he threatened to shut down the agency’s London Bridge office bar and told staff their behaviour had got "out of hand".

Tempest-Hay added: "Over the last few weeks, we have had: someone get drunk and throw up over the carpet (they've apologised, but still); someone – I can't put this any less bluntly – poo in the shower; someone mess their underwear and leave it for the cleaner.

"Not only are these things inappropriate for a workplace but it is totally unacceptable to expect our lovely cleaning lady to clear up the resultant mess."

Grudging apology

Transport for London resorted to a standard non-apology when a billboard for taxi app Kapten was accused of making light of men who commit crimes against women.

The offending poster showed a sinister-looking man not too far removed from the character played by Jack Nicholson in horror film The Shining, with the caption: "When you recognise your blind date from the news… Get me out of here Kapten."

In a statement, a TfL spokesperson said: "This advertisement was approved in error and we apologise for any offence it has caused."

They added: "We are working to ensure that it doesn't happen again. The advertisement does not meet the requirements of our advertising policy and is being removed from across our transport network. Kapten have also said they will not use this poster in any future campaign."

The personal touch


NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless apologised personally to a celebrity ambassador the charity had sacked.

Munroe Bergdorf, a transgender model and activist, had been chosen by the NSPCC in June to promote Childline. The move prompted Janice Turner, a columnist at The Times, to tweet that it was an "astonishing decision" to hire "a porn model as a Childline ambassador".

The next day the charity issued a statement denying that Bergdorf was an ambassador for the charity and saying that "she will have no ongoing relationship with Childline or the NSPCC."

The model, who denied she had ever taken part in pornography, hit back and accused the charity of having "decided to sever ties without speaking to me, delete all the content we made together and back-peddle [sic] without giving any reason why."

This led to a public backlash against the NSPCC, echoed by 148 of the charity’s own staff signing a letter condemning the move.

On 12 June the NSPCC issued a statement from chief executive Peter Wanless in which he said: "I want to acknowledge first and foremost that we shouldn't have cut ties with Munroe Bergdorf in the way we did… I have spoken with Munroe today about the situation and have offered a full, frank and unreserved apology."

Eventual apology



It took months for the University of Warwick to apologise for the manner in which it had dealt with complaints by female students who were the victims of violent fantasies, including of rape, shared by some male students.

The rape chat scandal emerged last year and anger at the way in which the university handled the matter sparked mass protests earlier this year.

The complaints had been investigated by Peter Dunn, the university’s director of press and media relations, which led to accusations of a conflict of interest. The university has since decided that comms professionals will not act as investigators into future complaints involving staff or students.

An independent review into the university’s student disciplinary and appeals processes, by solicitor Dr Sharon Persaud, stated: "There was a profoundly unsatisfactory outcome for almost every single person involved."

The university's action plan, released alongside the review's findings in July, said: "It is clear from Dr Persaud's report that we made some mistakes and we apologise for this – in particular, in how we communicated with the victims."

In an interview with the BBC, Stuart Croft, vice-chancellor of the university, said: "We are genuinely sorry. We have got this wrong. We have not supported them enough. We have not communicated enough." He also apologised for not speaking to the victims directly, saying: "I should have been quicker. I should have reached out. I should have engaged."

Wrong but not sorry


In September, Alex Deane, senior managing director at FTI Consulting, provoked a furious row during a live TV broadcast with Labour commentator Ayesha Hazarika, hosted by Sky’s Kay Burley.

He was attempting to defend the Prime Minister, who had been accused of groping a journalist at a lunch during his tenure as editor of The Spectator.

Bizarrely, Deane decided it would be appropriate to quote the words of the late Tory MP and womaniser Alan Clark: "How do I know my advances are unwanted until I've made them?"

The slip prompted a huge backlash against Deane on social media, and he was mocked in Marina Hyde's Guardian column: "Listen up, girls: you are getting a full house in crap sex bingo if Alex goes straight for your inner thigh…"

Jo-ann Robertson, chief executive and partner at Ketchum UK, tweeted: "Oh, Alex. This interview is horrendous on so many levels."

She added: "Grabbing someone on their thigh under a table without permission isn't an advance. It's assault. If it's an advance, use your words not your hands."

The following day, Deane tweeted: "I got it wrong on Sky yesterday quoting Alan Clark – it undermined the point I was making and moreover I shouldn't have repeated it as it doesn't reflect my views, as anyone who knows me will know."

Notable by its absence

Prince Andrew managed to get through a 50 minute interview with BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis without uttering a single word of apology, or even coming close to one.

He gave the interview to address mounting speculation over his friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and allegations that Andrew himself had sex with a trafficked girl, who was 17 when they first slept together, on several occasions.

The interview was described by Mark Borkowski as "a masterclass in PR disaster".

Jason Stein, a former adviser to Amber Rudd who was hired by Prince Andrew earlier this year, had advised against doing the interview and quit after his advice was ignored, according to a report in the Times.

The interview was notable for Prince Andrew’s apparent lack of remorse or sympathy towards the victims of the alleged sex offences.

Asked whether he wanted to say anything to Virginia Roberts, one of Epstein’s victims, who accuses the prince of having slept with her, he said: "I don't have a message for her."

Since the disastrous interview, Prince Andrew has been stripped of royal duties and forced to stand down from all his patronages, including scores of charities.


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