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Age of the public apology: How saying sorry has gone pro

10/27/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 12/26/2014 05:59 EST
(Listen to Josh Bloch's full documentary "I'm Sorry: The Art and Artifice of the Apology" on CBC radio's Ideas, Oct. 27 at 9 p.m.) 

It’s Justin Beiber apologizing for using a racial slur, Urban Outfitters saying sorry for its tasteless Kent State sweatshirt, footballer Ray Rice asking forgiveness for clobbering his wife. And don’t forget Clinton, Bryant, Weiner, Woods, West, Armstrong, Grant, Gibson, Richards, Vick, Letterman, Prince Harry ... to name a few.

Turn on the news on any given night and there is a fair chance you will be subjected to a philandering politician, bigoted celebrity, or negligent CEO asking for forgiveness.

Public apologies happen with such frequency these days, in fact, that it has created a new profession: Apology consultant.

“It is without a question a growth industry,” says Chris Lehane, an apology consultant, crisis manager, and author of Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control. “There just are so many of these incidents.”

Lehane worked as a communications consultant in the White House during U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration and helped navigate the Monica Lewinsky scandal. At that time, he says, public apologies were rare.

Now his phone buzzes incessantly with calls from public figures in crisis.  

“You know it wasn’t something that when I was going to college or even law school was on the job chart list,” Lehane says about his current line of work. 

But he says that after working for the Clinton Administration, he recognized that there were going to be more and more clients in need of his expertise.

Age of the apology

How did we end up living in the age of the apology?

Things like smart phones, surveillance cameras, Youtube and Twitter have shrunk the sphere of privacy surrounding the lives of public figures. A racist remark uttered at a private event can become a viral video viewed around the world within hours.

Lehane describes this phenomenon as Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village on speed.

“I think we now live in an environment, an ecology, where crisis is effectively the state of nature,” says Lehane. “It’s not a question of 'if' someone is going to face a challenge, it's only a question of when that happens.”

But the rise in the frequency of public apologies is also a function of our society’s greater sensitivity to what is considered offensive.

“There was a video a couple years ago of somebody putting a cat in a garbage dump and that went viral,” says  Richard Weisman, author of Showing Remorse: Law and the Social Control of Emotion. “Suddenly cruelty to animals invoked an incredibly strong response. If you go back 40 or 50 years, you will find very few prosecutions in Canadian law for cruelty to animals and very little expectation that if you are cruel to animals there should be any response whatsoever. Moral communities are constantly evolving in terms of what's acceptable and what's not.”

According to Weisman, a moral community is defined by the kinds of acts that require an apology. 

But not all apologies are equal.

Lehane says delivering a successful apology is an art that involves several necessary elements:

- The apology should be made as soon as possible after the transgression has occurred. 

- The words “I’m sorry” should appear early in the script.

- The apology should not include excuses or attempts to throw other people under the bus.

- The transgressor should commit to some kind of action that will help repair the damage or make sure it does not happen again.

Changing expectations

As an example of an apology well delivered, Lehane points to Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods. He issued a public apology in 2008 when 22 Canadians died after consuming Maple Leaf Food products contaminated with bacteria.

“It was done in relatively short order of whence the facts had become available,” says Lehane.

“No excuses were offered. It came from the top of the company. It wasn’t a lawyer. It wasn’t a PR person. This was the person whose name was on the company, which was incredibly important. He made absolutely clear that he, on behalf of the company, was accepting responsibility.”

But expectations around apologies are changing as society reaches the saturation point. The public has grown tired of being a spectator of these performances - they want to be participants as well.

Lehane says he thinks public apologies will begin to incorporate some kind of interactive element. This could look something like the “Ask Me Anything” on the popular website Reddit, where questions are answered by high-profile guests in real-time.

“A company facing a particular issue, could it create an online town hall or a crowdsourcing microsite to be able to actually get direct input from their consumers, and that would then inform some decisions they would make going forward?,” says Lehane.  

“I think you are going to see more and more of that. I think at some point someone in the near future who is very high profile is going to do something that is the analogue to an Ask Me Anything … At which point that will start to become part of the standard fare for how you are supposed to respond, because it will demonstrate and be clear that you are really wanting to take questions and answer them.”

In fact, Lehane's scenario is strikingly similar to how one of the world's latest mass apologies was handled.

Earlier this month U2 responded to widespread complaints about the compulsory download of their latest album, Songs of Innocence, to all of iTunes half-billion subscribers. But rather than issuing a statement, U2 released a Q&A video on their Facebook page where they answered questions posted by their Facebook followers.

One fan wrote, "Can you please never release an album on iTunes that automatically downloads to peoples' playlists ever again. It's really rude." Looking right into the camera Bono replied, “Oops, Sorry about that.”

(Listen to Josh Bloch's full documentary "I'm Sorry: The Art and Artifice of the Apology" on CBC radio's Ideas, Oct. 27 at 9 p.m.) 

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