One more for the Non-Apology Hall of Shame

Erik Bernstein crisis communications


[Editor’s note: This guest post comes to us from frequent contributor – and our go-to crisis expert “down under” – Tony Jaques. This particularly timely article lands just as we’re seeing a flurry of non-apologies from big names (ahem, Boeing, ahem) and explores the simple steps to take if you’d like to avoid accidentally winding up as the next inductee for the Non-Apology Hall of Shame.]

In the heat of an election campaign, politicians are even more likely than usual to say something stupid or insulting. So it’s a good time for the political elite (and others) to remember how and when to apologise.

Sadly there is a dispiriting catalogue of occasions when society‘s elected leaders simply could not bring themselves to sincerely say sorry.

The latest entry into the Non-Apology Hall of Shame was last month when Senator Ian McDonald was called out at a select committee hearing for apparently mocking the name of Senator Penny Wong (who was not present at the time). Challenged by Senator Kimberly Kitching to apologise for confusing two Chinese names, McDonald replied: “You are very sensitive about it. If Senator Wong has taken offence then I apologise to her. But if she does take offence, she has a very thin skin.”

It was a classic non-apology apology. As usual, little more than an outworn formula of over-used words to avoid any sort of accountability and to “blame the victim.” And certainly not the first. Think back to 2012 when then Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, made some remarks which were taken as offensive to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. This is how he ‘apologised.’

“If she wants to take offence, then of course I am sorry about that. And if she would like me to say I am sorry, I’m sorry.”

As Abbott’s political opponents asked at the time: ‘Why bother?’ They contended that his words simply compounded the original offence.

Some defenders argued that it was “in the heat of political debate” but that’s a pretty hollow excuse. A similar ‘explanation’ was offered when Defence Minister David Johnston had to apologise after he famously told the Senate that he would not trust the government’s shipbuilder, Australian Submarine Corporation, to build a canoe.

He tried to defend his comment as being a “rhetorical flourish” during parliamentary debate, but lost his job just a few weeks later.

Whenever there’s an election, politicians (and aspiring politicians) are even more likely to produce gratuitous insults and embarrassing gaffes – “in the heat of debate” or as “a rhetorical flourish” of course. And their opponents are even more likely to demand apologies – oftentimes purely for theatrics.

But whether it’s politicians or CEOs or celebrities, the principles remain the same. As Forbes Magazine wisely concluded a while ago: “Next time you’re clearly in the wrong, take a deep breath, put aside your self-justification, your excuses, your blame, your defensiveness, and simply apologize.”

And remember that “I’m sorry you were offended” is not the same as “I’m sorry my behaviour offended you.” Similarly, “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not the same as “I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”

If only the same amount of effort put into avoiding the word sorry was instead put into sincere apologies and genuine remorse. Moreover, the process is not that hard.

  • Don’t try to evade or divert personal responsibility.
  • Don’t imagine that “it is regrettable” is the same as “I am really sorry.”
  • Say you’re sorry.
  • Then say what you will do to avoid the same behaviour again.

If you can’t do that – and mean it – perhaps you shouldn’t say anything. To be effective, any apology must be swift and sincere. Apologies which are only grudging or reluctant, or are really non-apologies, can be worse than no apology at all.

Tony Jaques is an issue and crisis expert based in Melbourne, Australia, and author of “Crisis Proofing: How to save your company from disaster”