By Mark Sachs, Director of Client Engagement

The discussion I’m about to open is centered on the thesis that apologies are essential to the successful learning that occurs through failure. Unfortunately, our deep-seated biases and cultural stigmas against apologies are preventing this process from taking place. If we don’t begin to understand the correlation between apologies and success, we risk sacrificing a future full of rewarding opportunities.

Before I get into these, let me start by pointing out that most people have a difficult time apologizing; it’s an admission of failure. It say’s “I made an error.”  Matthew Syed, in his book, Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn From Their Mistakes-But Some Do, offers the following statement: “When we are confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs.” In essence, we double down. We don’t admit failure. We don’t apologize. Our bias represents an internal pressure not to apologize.

There are also external pressures applied against apologies. There is a risk to reputation, relationships, and career. There could even be a risk of bodily harm. When there is a concern that the party to whom you are expected to apologize will respond in a punitive way, the likelihood you would want to apologize decreases substantially. We live in a culture that quickly resorts to blame and blame dangerously precludes acceptance of personal responsibility. It’s this intersection of blame, personal responsibility, and success-from-failure that we will discuss in Part II. 

If we are going to normalize apologies and de-stigmatize human error, then we must understand the different ways apologies are employed and how they are received. Here are three:

1. Blame-the-Victim/Reluctant Apology

Assume a wrong has been committed, and the individual seeking an apology is willing to offer redemption in exchange for a sincere apology, though this is not a sine qua non for an apology to be legitimate. Most simply, the apologies are stated thusly, “I’m sorry but you_______,” fill in the blank, or “I’m sorry you feel that way,” The transgressor denies responsibility for causing the person(s) any harm. The words “I’m sorry” give the appearance of an apology without commensurate remorse.

For example, over the past few years, we’ve heard Members of Congress use the reluctant apology. When their sentiments have ventured into bigoted, prejudiced, or antisemitic territories, they often responded with “I’m sorry you felt that way…” These apologies rarely hit their mark and are almost always seen for what they are: spin.

2. Cancel Culture/Hostage Apology

Typically, those demanding the apology have not actually been harmed by the person from whom they are coercing the apology. What’s more, those demanding the apology are not offering redemption in exchange for the apology. Instead, they are seeking vengeance. Sadly, because their demand for an apology is made under the guise of social justice, the vengeance underlying it is not recognized until it’s too late.

Cancel culture/hostage apologies, as they are typically offered, are rarely good ideas: They are reactive, coerced, weak, and disingenuous. Moreover, the mob offers not redemption but punishment disproportionate to the transgression. So, one should really think twice before admitting any error in these cases.

Not surprisingly, post-apology the alleged transgressor is viewed completely opposite of their intention. Instead of being praised for showing integrity, courage, honesty, and humility, they are denigrated for having failed to show any of these.

The two clearest examples of cancel culture/hostage apologies are Chris Harrison, the former longtime host of The Bachelor, and Winston Marshall, lead guitarist and founding member of the folk-rock group Mumford and Sons. The former suffered from cancel culture with his career and dignity in shambles whereas the latter stood up to the cancel-culture mob resolute in his integrity.

Chris Harrison was caught up in a brouhaha for not unequivocally condemning a contestant who had, while in college, attended an antebellum-themed party and had been accused of other racially insensitive actions. He neither condoned nor condemned the actions by this contestant, instead suggesting he needed to know more about these circumstances and hear from the contestant before he opined. Seems reasonable.

The response was swift. Harrison was coerced into offering an apology that sounded like a hostage reading a list of transgressions against the hostage-taker.

But let’s ask these important questions: To whom was Harrison apologizing? Did he believe he had done something wrong? Did he expect enough appreciation for his apology that he would keep his job? From whom was Harrison to receive redemption? No one. In fact, just minutes after he completed his apology, the host accused Harrison of being disingenuous. He was fired from his job shortly after his public shaming.

Contrast Harrison’s response to that of Winston Marshall. Winston posted on his Twitter account a kudos to Andy Ngo’s book, Unmasked: inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy. Ngo is an independent journalist who follows, at significant risk to himself (he now has brain damage as a result of a beating), the radical movement, Antifa. 

The response to Marshall was swift. However, unlike Harrison, Marshall did not apologize to the mob. He stood resolutely for his principles and penned this remarkable open letter explaining why he was stepping away from the group he co-founded. He knew who had been hurt by his actions and who had not.

Marshall’s apology was sincerely offered to his bandmates and family for having brought this on them; and, in turn, his apology was accepted with acknowledgment by them of his loss. However, he did not apologize to the mob for his right to think freely and offer ideas to the public domain. He did not supplicate himself to the mob. He stood up to it by reaffirming his principles and denouncing theirs. No one can deny his courage, his integrity, and his loss at the hands of the cancel-culture mob. He was, in fact, the victim and the hero. Winston Marshall illustrates the way to offer an apology when confronted by the cancel-culture mob.

In fact, Winston’s letter may be establishing a trend. More recently, Professor Peter Boghossian, who resigned from Portland State University after enduring years of persecution by cancel-culture activists, penned an open letter reaffirming his principles to fair and open dialogue. He too took the opposite approach from Harrison and comes across as courageous, genuine, honest, and humble. 

3. Honest Apology

The honest apology works when the transgressor is genuine, sincere and knows from whom they must ask forgiveness. There is an actual recognition that someone was harmed and there is recognition of responsibility by the transgressor. When the recipient(s) are willing to offer redemption, the transgressor finds it easier to comply. Of course, a sincere apology may not be met with acceptance. Usually, however, an honest apology is received well. A punishment may still be forthcoming, but redemption implies a willingness to forgive; hence an opportunity to learn.

In crisis PR, we are often in the position to counsel Red Banyan clients on how to apologize, particularly in the midst of litigation. Consider the competing factors: we know sincere apologies help mitigate crisis scenarios, but we also know humans have a biased predisposition to avoid apologies and our cancel culture world preys on those who appear weak. What to do?

First, honest apologies are never weak. They, in fact, establish a position of strength.

Second, by offering an honest apology (in crises that involve litigation, the apology must be consistent with the client’s legal strategy), and before the mob gains strength, the apology dictates the narrative, providing the individual greater control over the potential crisis.

Third, the apology establishes that the individual has integrity, a trait that, even in our highly cynical world, is still widely respected.

The complex interplay between our willingness to admit error often expressed in apologies, our fear of blame and the use of blame to instill fear, and cancel culture’s use of apologies to destroy lives, has profound cultural consequences for our country. I’ll explore this interplay in part II.

Mark Sachs writes on a variety of issues and serves as Director of Client Engagement for the global communications firm Red Banyan.