Your brand is a huge asset. It represents the emotional capital you have with your audience. When brands make mistakes, apologies are key tactics that can be employed to help protect and even restore brand equity. But they aren’t miracle cures that can right all wrongs.
In the wake of all of the predatory sexual behavior from male celebrities in the news, I was asked about apologies and personal brands by a student at the University of Iowa. Specifically, I was asked my “opinions on the public apologies made by prominent men in our society in response to recent accusations of sexual harassment (Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Al Franken, etc.).” Remember, people — especially prominent, powerful people — are brands too.
Honestly, I don’t know what the fallout will be as this long-overdue cultural reckoning continues. This is a story that’s still developing. But, if we shrink the issue to personal brands and apologies, there might be something we can learn from all of this. With that in mind, here’s how I answered her questions:
1. Why might a PR professional advise a man accused of sexual harassment to issue an apology, public or personal?
For any brand that’s done something wrong or has upset customers, an apology is one of the easiest and most powerful things you can do. It costs you — the brand — nothing and takes a step toward making the injured party feel better. It shows that you, as a brand, understand that people are hurt and that you’ve done wrong. That said, as the offense increases, the impact of a simple apology can decrease. In the case of the many male offenders, an apology cannot erase a consistent pattern of predatory behavior. It’s a positive step but not a panacea.
2. What are the possible positive or negatives outcomes from such an apology from a PR perspective?
On the positive side of the ledger, you have said something. It shows that you’re listening and understanding. Shrewdly, saying something early — if you have something meaningful to say — can help you and your brand maintain control of the story. However, on the negative side, any good is erased if you are inaccurate with these early statements. If you apologize for what you call an isolated incident and then several other examples come forward, you’ve added to your troubles rather than alleviated them. On top of being in the wrong, you look like a liar as well. As we’ve seen, this can snowball. An apology helps but it has to be the right apology at the right time.
3. What should be included to maximize the effectiveness of the apology from a PR perspective? What should be avoided?
First, apologize for what was done. If possible, aim beyond the scope of your offense. Don’t just apologize for an isolated incident. Broaden this to apply to other times where you may have been insensitive and hurt people’s feelings. Be simple. Be human. These statements are often bogged down with legalese and end up sounding like apologies from a robot. Or a defense attorney. Neither party is particularly known for heartfelt expression.
Of the recent apologies, I’m not sure any have been very effective. Louis CK confirmed his allegations immediately as The New York Times story broke. However, he’d been denying them for over a decade. And, perhaps in an effort to be human, he came off as crass as if to say, “Sorry not sorry.” Senator Al Franken was quick to confirm as well but his confession lacked transparency. Soon after apologizing for the incident it became apparent that this behavior wasn’t isolated. Lesson: be authentic and transparent.
Another lesson? Don’t do even more damage in the process of apologizing. Kevin Spacey delivered a cruel blow to the gay community by apologizing for sexual behavior and coming out publicly for the first time. Harvey Weinstein checked himself into therapy while continuing to deny the scores of accusations. Except actress Lupita Nyong’o. Weinstein made a point to speak up and denounce her charge alone. Now, in addition to being a predator and a liar, he’s also racist as he only broke his silence to deny the accusation of the sole black victim.
Ultimately, an apology might not work for any of these personal brands. The offenses are too big at a time when we, as a society, are finally saying, “enough.” But an apology is always a solid step in the right direction when you know your brand is in wrong. You messed up. You hurt someone’s feelings. Acknowledge that and see what happens next.