In both public and private life, it’s never easy to say you’re sorry. For public figures, apologies must be carefully crafted in order correct the damage done by public wrongs. We’ve seen plenty of public figures botch public apologies and suffer the career consequences — it’s nearly a weekly occurrence — must see PR-disaster TV. But we’ve also seen some truly effective public apologies, made human with a combination of earnestness, humility, and remorse.


We Apologize

Acknowledge the issue, but don’t apologize before you know all the facts.


One of the primary reasons the public responds negatively to public apologies is that individuals and companies often apologize before they’ve fully grasped the situation. This knee-jerk response is well intentioned but ill advised, and it almost always results in an inauthentic apology. If you don’t fully understand the events that occurred during a crisis, you can’t hope to convey to the public true remorse.


In a crisis, the situation should be acknowledged immediately, but apologies should be put on hold until the full picture of events surrounding the crisis comes into focus. This is also an insurance policy. You may learn that your client isn’t responsible for any offense. If your client issues a premature apology, they might have to retract it and risk losing their credibility in the process.


Press conference picture

Choose the right messenger to deliver the public apology.


The art of saying and meaning you’re sorry starts with responsibility. This is where public figures often get it wrong. Unless the guilty party is an accomplished liar, the public will detect an insincere apology from a mile away. There’s no way around it, and it’s certain to make the situation worse. Some clients simply lack the type of personality that elicits a positive response from the public. This is why, whenever possible, you should select an alternate person to issue the apology. If you have no choice but to let a disagreeable public figure issue the apology, then the individual must receive media training before being unleashed in the public.



The role of a PR professional is to build relationships between clients and publics. When those relationships have been damaged, the role of the PR pro is to help repair those relationships. Even if the wrong was unintentional, the client must still provide the facts and apologize for being associated with the wrong. Word choice is imperative. When a message leaves room for interpretation, a crisis takes on a life of its own. The apology must be carefully crafted, leaving no room for interpretation.


There are ways to avoid a public backlash when in the midst of a crisis, but the public isn’t interested in insincere apologies from remorseless public figures. While there’s no guarantee that the public will react to an apology positively, there are steps you can take to ensure that the apology meets the public’s expectations and minimize the possibility of the apology being perceived as insincere.


What are some examples of successful and unsuccessful public apologies? Leave your thoughts in the comments section, or tweet me @nataliepetitto.