Apology in the Media (Again)

Much has been written about apologies and how they can be effective in resolving conflict. However, two recent events spurred me to tackle this important topic once again and identify lessons that apply to conflict resolution.

First, I listened to a terrific podcast of the CBC radio program “Under the Influence” with Terry O’Reilly. He is a master storyteller and devoted this episode of his terrific series to corporate apologies used by corporations strategically as part of a public relations plan to redeem themselves in the eyes of their public. He described four specific situations in which corporations (Johnson & Johnson, Dominos Pizza, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Foods) engaged in what might be referred to as the “instrumental” use of apology (some more successfully than others).

O’Reilly explained that when listeria was discovered at a Maple Leaf Foods plant in 2008, CEO Michael McCain immediately took a public leadership role by ordering a recall and issuing a personal apology. McCain described the steps taken to respond to the outbreak and said he was “deeply sorry”. O’Reilly observed that this apology was effective because Mr. McCain acted quickly and decisively, didn’t avoid blame or point fingers, and maintained full responsibility. The full page newspaper apology published by the Toronto Maple Leafs after they failed to make the playoffs this year took a similar approach but O’Reilly speculated that because it was in writing and wasn’t accompanied by tangible acknowledgements (like ticket price reductions) the public didn’t buy it.

Based on the four examples, O’Reilly provided some practical apology-pointers:

  • Separate the apology from the explanation. The apology must stand on its own to be processed by customers. Otherwise, they hear only excuses.
  • Own more than your portion of responsibility. It is a human tendency to assign portions of guilt (“we are responsible for 40%; they are 60% at fault”). It is better to own the entire problem.
  • Focus on what happens next and show leadership. Action accelerates forgiveness.
  • Apologies are awkward to hear but they have the power to heal.
  • A sincere and timely apology is essential to restoring trust and reputation.

The second event that spurred this post was the lengthy written apology published by former Seinfeld star, Jason Alexander, after his reference to cricket as “gay” during his TV appearance June 1st on the Craig Ferguson show. The full text of the apology is provided here. This is actually a remarkable letter and one has to wonder whether he wrote it himself or engaged a coach. What makes it so impressive?

Here are my responses to Alexander’s piece:

  • It was timely (within one week of his statement).
  • He honestly acknowledged his lack of sensitivity (“I didn’t get it”).
  • He owned his responsibility for the gaffe – fully.
  • He refrained from trying to explain away his statement. He explained the context but didn’t excuse what he said.
  • He showed a willingness to reflect on his own behaviour and thoughts. His first reaction was that he didn’t understand at all why people were offended, but he didn’t stop there. His apology seemed to flow naturally from his own growing insight.
  • He showed an ability to learn from his mistake.
  • He demonstrated empathy for those who were being abused.
  • He didn’t use the very common and ineffectual “if” apology (“I’m sorry if I did anything to offend you”).
  • He made it personal and specific to the situation.
  • He appeared to be sincere and provided a heartfelt apology.

The apology has been called “a PR Homerun”. I invite you to read the entire piece and let me know what you think.

It seems that simply saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. One of the best pieces on apology is still John Kleefeld’s article about the BC Apology Act (2006). He lists the four elements of an effective apology (at page 790):

Apology Element Expression

Remorse “I’m really sorry I didn’t call you the other day with the information”

Responsibility “I know what I did was wrong.”

Resolution “I promise something like this will never happen again.”

Reparation “If there is any way I can make it up to you please let me know.”

Jason nailed all four and more. I can’t say as much for the apology from the Toronto Maple Leafs – but that is another story.

Apologizing is a complex business. But we need to keep practicing! In addition to its other important functions in human society, apology can be an extremely important part of a negotiated settlement. In fact, in some situations it may be the most important part. Kleefeld says:

For many, an apology is compensation – even restoration – and can be the most valuable part of a settlement. This is especially so where the wrong has a high degree of moral turpitude, as in sexual abuse cases where the offenders were in positions of trust, or where the wrong arose out of a doctor-patient or other professional relationship in which trust is a hallmark. Of course, the lawyer’s predilection is to state loss in terms of money damages, and this is the kind of relief courts can order. But it is presumptuous to impose this view on clients and to elevate the importance of quantifiable losses over the healing aspects of apologies. In some cases, doing so may even add proverbial insult to injury.


It is encouraging that the media is highlighting this critical skill and helping us to keep it top of mind.


  1. This is a useful note.

    Led by BC, the Uniform Law Conference of Canada adopted the Uniform Apology Act in 2007. Since then most common-law provinces have adopted such legislation, sometimes with slight modifications (Ontario expressly excludes the rule from prosecutions), sometimes as part of their Evidence Act rather than as a free-standing statute.

    Only in Ontario was there substantive debate on the topic, with fears expressed by one opposition critic that apologies would be used strategically to persuade victims of negligence to settle for less than they deserved. The answer to that criticism seems to be Professor Kleefeld’s observation quoted at the end of the article here. The law should not presume that the only or the best reparation is made in money.

  2. Maureen Fitzgerald

    Thanks Kari. This is very important. The only thing missing is what I refer to as the empathy part. If you fail to understand how your actions made the other person feel or how it impacted them two things happen. The person will not believe your promise to repair things or not do it again. And you will likely harm the person again since you did not truly understand at an emotional level what you did wrong. This happens in marriages all the time.

  3. I agree with Maureen. Most of the examples are how-to guides on the mechanics of salvaging a “brand”. Or more plainly, how to a shine a tarnished good. And at the lowest cost. Others not so charitable, care of, would say: “We live in an age, in which liabilities are sold as assets, lies are told as truth…”

  4. m. diane kindree

    Thank you for tackling this complex issue which continues to require substantive debate (at least in Ontario).

    In reviewing your examples one glaring difference leaps out at me: context, context, context. To frame context one will intersect language, semantics, behavior (maybe even empathy) and circumstances because without context, there is no meaning. The apology can then be something one “ought to do” (PR “Sorry Works”) rather than what one “needs to do” (assume full responsibility for action and consequences).

    To some degree, the public wants to believe that the person making the apology is trustworthy and credible (“leap of faith”) but ultimately, there is no way to evaluate a person’s character development and integrity. So what could motivate those media apologies: reality–losses, rewards and consequences. If the lack of due care and attention, sensitivity, due diligence, common sense, etc. will cost them (not just $$$) then they seem to get real and invest in an apology. I am not negating the personal benefits (growth and development) which may occur after the apology is made but this is a different context which assumes the person (those giving and/or receiving the apology) has been changed.

    The problem with the Apology legislation is that there is absolutely no way to ensure consistency and safeguard the public interest based on an apology. The legislation is orientated toward an increase in its use without researching whether or not these benefits are real.

    Should the context and motivation behind an apology be examined more thoroughly than the mechanics of savaging a “brand” name?