Everyone’s doing it. Lance Armstrong told Oprah he was sorry for doping during all of his seven Tour de France victories. Failed New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner apologized for letting a lot of people down when he let his pants down. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal but wants you to trust him again so he ran for city comptroller. Philadelphia Eagles receiver Riley Cooper apologized for screaming a racial slur that was caught on video and went viral. And let’s not forget former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford who said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually with a lover in another country. Oops.
There are real apologies and self-serving apologies. And in today’s spin-cycle of trying to right wrongs, it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference. Take Armstrong for example. He looked serious as he confessed to wanting to control everything and admitted he could not have won without the drugs. But then he said he didn’t feel bad about cheating. If so, then why did he go to so much trouble to conceal it?
If I was advising Armstrong, I would have suggested he start the interview like this: “Yes, Oprah, I used drugs and I am not asking for forgiveness. I lied and made bad decisions. I was a jerk. But I want to humbly and sincerely apologize to those who told the truth that I tried to discredit. I want to apologize to their families. I was wrong. I have no excuses other than arrogance and a total disregard for other people.”
Then I might have told him if he truly wanted to right his wrong, he should speak out as often as possible against doping in sports in an effort to prevent others from making the same mistake.
I watched Riley Cooper’s live news conference and to me, he seemed sorry, sincere and genuinely embarrassed. But the embarrassment should have spilled over to Eagles management who told the media they were ‘shocked and appalled’ only to quickly bring him back from a few days of counseling in time for an exhibition game.
At least the Eagles didn’t produce an apology video which appears to be the latest trend in attempting to reclaim your public image. Weiner and Sanford — who is now a congressman — did it. You can find it on YouTube. They begin by admitting they’ve made mistakes and apologizing for their imperfections without going into detail about what they actually did. Then they ask for another chance and quickly move on to tell you how great they are and what they can do for you and why you should vote for them.
Celebrity chef Paula Dean released three apology videos after making racial jokes and remarks. She too seemed sincere, but offered little in the way of any specifics such as why she did what she did and what she would do to right the wrong and perhaps become a better person.
Like so many before them, today’s apologies seem vague and make you wonder if high-profile newsmakers would have bothered to apologize at all if they had not been caught. But technology has made it tougher than ever to fly under the radar. Look what happened to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he made controversial comment at a private fundraiser. All it took was someone with a cell phone for the comment to go viral. Years ago, the comment might have never hit the headlines.
So what should we do if we find ourselves or our companies in the unexpected limelight? The answers aren’t that much different than what we should have learned in the pre Web-cam, cell phone YouTube era.
Make the apology about them: Acknowledge what you did wrong and talk about those who were wronged instead of talking about yourself. Explain why you did what you did without excuses. After apologizing for the 2010 oil spill, BP CEO Tony Hayward turned the conversation back to himself instead of focusing on the victims when he said he’d like his life back.
Right the Wrong: Explain how you will right the wrong. Will you speak publicly? Will you mentor? Will you do community service? How will you become better and help others to learn from your mistakes?
Don’t Wait Until Your Caught: When you acknowledge a wrong up front, you exude leadership and strength. You also have a better opportunity to manage the message and get out in front of the story instead of reacting to it.
Beware of Non-Verbals: Video is always game changer. Not only can people judge your tone, but a spokesperson’s body language, eye contact and facial expressions are directly related to company performance. According to a study reported in the Washington Post, inappropriate facial expressions were “greatly detrimental” to share prices. People trained in coding facial expressions were asked to analyze video apologies for expressions of happiness, sadness or disgust and compare them with company stock returns on the day of the apology and the day after. Negative expressions were correlated with negative stock returns.
So the next time you think a video apology is the way to go, remember that even before technology made it easier to bare your soul, actions still spoke louder than words.