Thursday, April 23, 2015

The 6 As: A New Model for Apologies

This was written with my former student, Heena Chavda, and appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of The Strategist.

Great amounts of time and effort are spent carefully crafting speeches, message points and press releases yet many stumble and bumble their way through an apology. Sometimes the outcome of a poorly conceived and executed apology creates more negative attention than the original offense. 

The apology by Bob Eckert, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of Mattel, Inc., during their lead-paint toy recall in 2007, convinced 84% of those polled by HCD Research to trust Mattel to take the actions necessary to ensure product safety. However, an apology offered does not make it an apology made. British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward undermined his apology during the Gulf oil spill crisis in 2010 by adding the now famous lines, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back”.

Apology Models

Three Elements. The University of Michigan developed a model to combat the “defend and deny” practice common among medical practitioners. Patients are: “Approached, Acknowledged, and Engaged”. “The system's annual attorneys fees have since dropped from $3 million to $1 million, and malpractice lawsuits and notices of intent to sue have fallen from 262 filed in 2001 to about 130 per year” in a 2004 report.

Four Elements. In Aaron Lazare offers four elements in his book “On Apology”: the acknowledgement of the offense, expression of remorse, offering an explanation, and making reparations.

Five Elements. Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish scholar and philosopher, describes five steps in his Hilchot Teshuva – The Rules of Repentance. First is recognizing what was done wrong and second is showing regret. The third step is the act of making a verbal declaration. Fourth is a vow not to repeat the mistake and fifth is a demonstration by the transgressor that he has learned from his mistake. John Kador in his book, “Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust,” also says recognition, remorse, and restitution constitute an effective apology but adds responsibility and repetition to round out his “5R” framework.


Place. The choice of where to deliver an apology should be deliberate. Some times, though, immediacy will play a role and selections will be limited. Comedian Michael Richards appeared on the Late Night Show with David Letterman after a video of him using racist language at a comedy club went viral in 2006. At the behest of fellow cast-member and friend Jerry Seinfeld, Richards appeared via satellite on Letterman to explain what happened and offer his regrets for his actions. On a show typically known for its comedy content, Richards was quite somber and appeared visibly shaken during the interview. However, the mixed message of a serious apology on a program known for laughs was questionable. Indeed, the audience could be heard chuckling, unsure if his appearance was serious or part of a comedy routine.

Time. The question of when to apologize is one that continues to draw debate – too soon may seem reflexive and too late may appear to be an afterthought. Tiger Woods was criticized for waiting three months before apologizing for his infidelity. In those months, the public, media and sponsors had an opportunity to make their own judgments. When he made a highly staged apology, his words of regret were over-shadowed by his justification of having an addiction to sex.

One of the most delayed apologies in recent time came from the German drug firm Gruenenthal, makers of thalidomide. Decades after the morning sickness drug was pulled from shelves in the 1960s when it was linked to numerous birth defects, CEO Harald Stock apologized during a memorial speech commemorating a statue dedicated to the victims in 2012. The suspicion and anger caused by the long delay was compounded by the claim that it was the result of the company’s own grief: "We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn't find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being. We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us." This was taken as an absurd and insulting attempt at rationalizing an egregious decision.

Other notable examples of delayed responses include the 359-year gap between the arrest and imprisonment of Galileo Galilei ordered by the Roman Catholic Church and the 1992 apology by Pope John Paul II. In 2000, the same Pope offered a sweeping apology and sought forgiveness for centuries of atrocities of violence, persecution and mistakes committed against Jews, women, native peoples and heretics.

Authenticity. While it may be important and necessary to seek the counsel of public relations professionals to ensure an apology is crafted appropriately, it can leave the recipient – and the public – wondering if it was genuine. The derogatory comments made by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver about gay players in professional football sparked such a question. In a radio interview on the Artie Lange Show in 2013 he said, “I don't do the gay guys man. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff.”

Chris Culliver issued a statement the next day: “The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel. It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.” The quick response and Cullilver’s apology showed regret. The language and grammar used in the interview, however, was much different than the apology statement. By not placing the apology in the client’s voice, public relations professionals risk stripping the effort of its intended benefit by removing all elements of authenticity. 

Issues of time, place and authenticity all converged in 2013 around Paula Deen’s apology for her use of a racial epithet. A video apology “statement” was posted, only to be removed hours later. Though she said, “inappropriate, hurtful language is totally, totally unacceptable,” Deen actually spent more time asking for forgiveness.

A second apology video was posted but it didn’t start with any expression of remorse to her fans, patrons, business partners or the community; her words were directed to Matt Lauer for standing him up on the TODAY show. She explained her pain “has been tremendous.” Deen then went on to blame “the press” for an untrue portrayal of her and her family. A third video apology also targeted Lauer. She said, “I was physically in no shape to come in and talk with you. The last 48 hours have been very, very hard.” Five days later, Deen made her appearance on the TODAY show. She said, “I was overwhelmed. I was in a state of shock… There have been some very, very hurtful lies about me.” Before the interview, two companies announced they were cutting ties. After the show aired, the list grew to include The Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Walmart, Target, Caesars Entertainment, QVC, Novo Nordisk, Sears, Kmart, J. C. Penney and Random House.

A New Model: The 6 As

Building on the works using three, four and five elements, a new framework is proposed. The six elements – the 6 As – are:

1. Acknowledging something has happened. If there’s no acceptance of responsibility, there’s no foundation on which to build a future relationship.

2. Having an Authentic expression of regret. When an apology demonstrates an authentic expression of remorse, it is heartfelt, it is real, and it is something to which the audience can feel and connect. 

3. Using Appropriate tone and language. The mood, tenor and words must fit both the person apologizing and the audience for which the apology is intended.

4. Choosing an Acceptable venue. Location determine who and how many will receive the message, and will help set the tone of the apology.

5. Acting in the right timeframe. A delay or hesitation could result in mounting suspicion and a missed opportunity to correct the situation. 

6. Announcing next steps. Demonstrating how the offense won’t be repeated can be vital in rebuilding trust and reputation.

Research and Implications

We conducted a non-randomized online survey (using Qualtrics) of 205 adults to assess the relative weights of the 6 As by using a constant sum scale. Each respondent had to assign a value for each of the six elements, adding up to 100 total points.

Though this was an initial test, the average values fell neatly into multiples of the lowest average score obtained, which was Acceptable Venue (see Table). Thus, Appropriate Tone, Acting in the Right Timeframe and Announcing Next Steps were weighted as x 2, and Acknowledging Something Has Happened and Authentic Expression were weighted as x 3. With these weights and elements, we have a workable equation to measure the effectiveness of apologies.

Apology Element and Rank

Average Value
(does not sum to 100 because of rounding)
Weighting Factor
1. Authentic expression of remorse

2. Adequate acknowledgement that something happened

3. Announcement of potential resolution or remedy

4. Acting in the right time frame
5. Appropriate tone and language

6. Acceptable venue for apology

With greater exposure and access to communication outlets, there’s greater pressure to apologize. It’s a volume issue with perhaps a dash of political correctness and a decline in civility thrown in to the mix. As the numbers continue to grow, practitioners will be confronted more often with the need to develop apology or develop an apology for a bad apology. It’s important that apologies are researched and developed with the same care as any other internal or external communication messages; they must be thoughtfully crafted, and be authentic, timely, and delivered appropriately in order for recipients to receive them in the way they were intended. And though Venue was ranked last, this aspect may take on greater relevance as we witness more apologies being made on social media platforms.

From a practical standpoint, the 6 A rubric may equip communication practitioners with a new tool to assist organizations and individuals in the mitigation or recovery from reputation-killing words or deeds. At a minimum, adding a sixth dimension to the evaluation of apologies creates a new checklist for practitioners. The maximal value, however, might be realized through its use in testing apologies in advance of their delivery or in “post-mortem” analyses of communication efforts.

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