“PR Disaster”

The only thing worse than being asked to make a public apology is making a public apology.

Here is a conversation that has never happened:

A: Did you hear Daniel Tosh made a rape joke?

B: He makes those all the time though.

A: Yeah but this girl yelled at him for it and then he said “wouldn’t it be funny if she were raped by like 5 guys?”

B: OMG!

A: He apologized though.

B: Oh, that’s good. Good for him. I’m going to delete my criticism of him now.

Journalists, bloggers, and internet commenters are character vultures who will take every opportunity to point out a flaw in someone if they feel it’s justified, and especially if it’s newsworthy. They will not stop because someone apologized. Instead, they will say something like, “the fact remains, he shouldn’t have done that” or “it’s good that he apologized, but we still need to discuss it” or even “yeah, he apologized. So what?”

An apology does the following things:

  • It cedes authority to the person asking for the apology.
  • It admits you were wrong.

Here is something it does not do:

  • It does not make you look better, even if you already look bad to begin with.

In the long-term PR game, nothing changes from issuing an apology. In fact, it probably works against you, since the people asking for an apology are now known to have been in the right. The people on the receiving end of your apology look better having received it, and anything they said about you — which, in the game of public criticism, is probably hyperbolic  or absolute or both — is legitimized.

The people on the “issuing” side of public apologies who have benefited from them can be as diverse as No One.

To make this point clear, here is something written about Richard Dawkins by the blog Almost Diamonds, during his blog battle with Rebecca Watson:

“You decided you knew better than she did what had happened, and you were comfortable explaining it to everyone else. That is part of how communities are ruined and ultimately shaped to support sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. That is how offenders operate and how they are excused. That is how the world that hurt us was built. And you have added to that.

That is why you owe us an apology as much as you owe Rebecca. When may we expect it?”

This is not the writing of someone who, when issued an apology, will say “wow, I think better of you of a person now. I will cease writing anything negative about you in the future, because even though it may bring me page views and possible grabs at career advancement, I think you’re a pretty good guy.”

In a world where Richard Dawkins apologizes, the bloggers will chalk it up on their list of victories and continue to use him as a bad example and villain. They will continue to write about the incident, framing it as a learning experience for people interested in their ideology.  They will use you as a source of material for weeks, if not months. Except it’s a good thing that never happened to Daniel Tosh, because he apologized.

Oh wait, that’s exactly what happened to Daniel Tosh after he apologized.

On a list of people who you should never issue a public apology to, “activist groups and bloggers” sit rotundly at the top, making a nice butt-groove for the next person who will never take their place. An apology will not cause them to read you more charitably. This is not a collection of people who are used to stopping once they feel like they’ve said everything they have to say on an issue. They like being outraged, and they can smell your weakness. Once they do, they will keep clawing at you until they’ve milked everything they can out of you.  Once they have that feeling, they find more things to say. Hate is money, and if they can milk hatred of you, they will, and that hatred won’t go away from a public apology.

Which brings me to the title of this article. The one phrase that can bring someone as criticism-resistant as a shock comedian to issue an apology:

“PR Disaster.”

Most people have in their heads an idea of what their job is based on their title. A hair stylists job is to style hair, a cook’s job is to cook, and so on.

Naturally, when faced with a PR disaster, a PR expert will default to “my job is PR, and PR is definitely not good right now.”

The natural response for a PR person is to pressure whoever you are doing PR for to make an apology. In that case, at least you can say you tried.

Your efforts were actually counterproductive.

In the short-term PR game, this seems like a good idea. It may cause the controversy to die down a little bit faster than it would have otherwise. The storm clears and you can enjoy the sunny weather a bit sooner. You feel like you’ve done the right thing.

In the long-term PR game it’s not worth it. Outrage does not occur simultaneously. Outrage is a process of people discovering the thing that makes them outraged and reacting to it. Different people will discover the outrage-provoking thing at different times. In other words, it’s not a back-and-forth.

Thinking of public discussion as a back-and-forth is a problem. Certainly, there is back-and-forth between people, but there is not back-and-forth between people in aggregate. If you treat it this way, you might think that you can apologize to an aggregate like you can apologize to an individual. This will not work because people in aggregate do not view stories in aggregate. There is not a checker that tells someone whether the person they’re mad at has apologized or not. There is not, and never will be, an incentive for a newspaper to put “WARNING: THIS PERSON APOLOGIZED. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM THINKING THEY SUCK.”

So people will still be yelling at you. And your credibility is weakened. And you’re on record as having admitted you did something stupid, as opposed to just having been accused of doing something stupid. If you didn’t make an apology, only people who thought you should have apologized think less of you. But if you did, those people think less of you and so do people who still liked you.

Still, not everyone is a belligerent apology-seeker. It’s easy to imagine situations where a public apology still seems like a good idea. Like:

“What if an engineer or technician makes a mistake, and publicly corrects their error?”

If your error is technical in nature and/or has an objective solution, admitting it isn’t an apology. It’s a correction.

Synonyms for this: fixed, repaired.

You don’t apologize for a typo. You fix a typo. Nor do you apologize for a broken tire, or malfunctioning code.

If you are a magazine or newspaper and you make an error you later publicly correct, your credibility is actually INCREASED from admitting the error, because you look like you have journalistic standards.

The same is not true of Daniel Tosh-style controversies. The error is emotional in nature, not technical. People can continue to hate you even after you’ve made the apology, and they probably will, because they’re distanced from you.

Still, some people can imagine scenarios where the apology worked. They might say something like:

“What about Jason Alexander? His apology was amazing, and clearly effective.”

Do you see what  just happened there? You were able to think of his apology.

He made his apology bigger than his error. His ‘mistake’ was minor, and his apology was called the greatest in history. If your mistake is so under-the-radar that you can make a public apology more public than the mistake itself, you aren’t in a “PR disaster.” Whether you apologize or not is up to you.

But in cases where you can make the apology bigger than the mistake itself, you look good. If everyone knows your side but no one knows the other person’s side, that’s all they’ll ever know. The masses have never collectively sought out all sides of a story; if multiple sides are ever known, it’s because an information source (a newspaper, a blogger, a historian, whatever) shoved it down everyone’s throats until it couldn’t be ignored anymore.

If Brad Pitt is a jerk to someone in a club, no one will know about it unless he’s such a large jerk that it erupts into a shouting match. If Brad Pitt wanted to seem like a really good guy, he could take the person out for dinner — chump change on Brad’s budget — and photographers would take pictures of the two cordially having beers. Not only would the internet be alive with posts like “Brad Pitt is a pretty cool dude,” no one would know any better.  The internet loves semi-random acts of kindness to unknowns, and they haven’t heard the non-Brad side. By that point, they wouldn’t care either way.

So if everyone knows your apology or the most of what everyone knows is your apology, all they can see is you being a really good person. They probably won’t even bother to figure out what it was you did wrong in the first place. This is distinct from if you were Daniel Tosh, because in that scenario the masses already know what you did and were able to put their own spin on it. There is no chance of making the apology bigger than the mistake.

“Okay, so apologizing might not make you look better. You should still apologize because you’d be a good person.”

In our “person asked to make a public apology” scenario, we don’t assume guilt or innocence. We’re only concerned with the PR side of public apologies. It’s a bad side.

The non-PR side can involve scenarios like apologizing to your girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s a terrible idea to “ride out the storm” with a loved one. If that was someone’s regular mode of operation, they probably wouldn’t have any friends.

Public apologies are different than private apologies because private apologies can be customized to one person. Public apologies cannot. It is nearly impossible to address the emotions of hundreds of hurt people through a twitter apology, especially because there are so many varied reasons why someone could be hurt. If you are legitimately concerned with the emotions of people you have hurt, it’s probably better to apologize in private.

Restated: PR-wise, making public apologies is probably a bad idea. Whether you think you are morally obligated to do so is entirely dependent on you. Do you actually think you did something wrong? Or do you just feel pressured by a lot of people to do something wrong?

It is entirely possible to feel pressured to the point where you feel like you’ve done something wrong, even if you haven’t. The person making a public apology doesn’t have to actually be at fault to make a public apology. A storm of criticism and articles about why you’re terrible will not feel encouraging no matter what, and it’s tempting to feel like apologizing will get them out of your hair. That doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.

If you legitimately haven’t done anything wrong, it would be more dishonest to make a public apology because it would be a lie. Then you’d be stuck wondering if you should make a public apology for making a false public apology. But again: if you legitimately feel like you’ve done something wrong, maybe you might want to take the PR hit. It’s your call.

Public apologies are still a pretty bad idea.

Public corrections are good, but those aren’t apologies. Private apologies are good, because you can customize them to the person. And if you’re able to make your apology bigger than the mistake itself, you’re not in a PR disaster where a public apology is being demanded of you.

The term “PR disaster” and the apologies that ensue are utilized and sought after respectively by people who already think you messed up to begin with, and need something more objective-sounding than “I think he did something wrong.” So if you, as a journalist or blogger, can’t justifiably use your personal ideology as a newsworthy criticism of someone, you can at least base your labeling on the fact that that person looks bad right now.

Europeans are fond of saying that Americans have the memory of a squirrel. They’re half-right; everyone has the memory of a squirrel. And that’s just factual memory. Emotional memory is more like a fruit fly. Most people can’t stay angry at something or someone for very long, especially over the course of many months.

In the case of Richard Dawkins, most people who were then angry at him stopped caring a long time ago. Many of those people didn’t care about him to begin with. And the people who are still angry make up a niche group. In the end, very little changed.

So the next time a public figure is asked to make a public apology — even if the term “PR Disaster” is used — the lesson is this:

Never back down. Never apologize. It will only bring you down further. Ride the storm out, and you’ll be fine in the end.

4 thoughts on ““PR Disaster”

  1. What if someone made a mistake he honestly regrets and if he cares more about the truth than his own reputation? Wouldn’t an apology make sense in such a scenario?

    • It wouldn’t make sense on the PR side. Plus, usually when that happens the apology isn’t public. Apologizing for other reasons, such as because you genuinely feel you’ve made a mistake, isn’t the domain of this article to address.

      The direct answer to your question, ignoring PR: “probably.” Though the book Age of Propaganda mentions a case where pressure led a man to admit guilt for a crime he didn’t commit. If you don’t feel like you’ve done something wrong it might be less truthful to issue an apology.

      While I’m on this note, someone brought up a mistake admitted by a facebook engineer as an example of a successful public apology. The problem with that: if you can use the words “corrected” or “repaired” as synonyms, it’s not an apology. It’s something that needs fixing.

    • IMO yes. If you feel like it apologize to the person in question. But don’t do it in public. All that ever might become public should be “We had a conversation” and “that case is settled”.

  2. As a German, I have always been under the impression that the public apology (and subsequent all-encompassing forgiveness) is a staple of WASP-influenced american public culture. It never ceases to astonish me how spokespeople of US companies and celebrities who fucked up come up with elaborate apologies and the public actually seems to buy into it, to the point where a public apology (despite admitting one is guilty) seems like a smart move for PR.

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