Sorry!: Public figures’ apologies can set the stage for forgiveness or for mockery

Donald Sterling’s disorderly interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on May 12 marked yet another celebrity apology gone wrong. While his apology seemed far from scripted, someone on his team should’ve looked over his notes one last time before he began the interview with “I’m not a racist.” But before he even began, he already made a mistake.

“It took two weeks to apologize,” DePaul public relations instructor Jim Motzer said.

Timeliness is an important component to a successful apology, according to Motzer. The lack of timeliness was one of the many reasons that Sterling’s apology failed his brand.

PR and legal teams are prepared to make whatever moves necessary to rescue their clients from total destruction. These strategic moves differ from client to client, but a formal apology to the public is the most necessary, and coincidentally the most difficult.

While Sterling put up a defensive front, other public figures rely on another component of a successful apology: remorse. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry showed remorse on national TV when she held back tears apologizing for her and her fellow panelists’ jokes about Mitt Romney’s adopted African-American grandson.

“My intention was not malicious, but I broke the ground rule that families are off-limits, and for that I am sorry,” Harris- Perry said.

She also went a step further and extended her apology to all other families formed through transracial adoption saying, “I am deeply sorry that we suggested that interracial families are in any way funny or deserving of ridicule.”

Sometimes it’s not a single public figure who’s in the spotlight, but an entire brand. Netflix’s deadly announcement of a company split in 2011 between streaming and DVD rental, which would have hiked prices up 60 percent, set consumers off. CEO Reed Hastings attempted to calm customers with an apology video — shot outside a L.A. pool — but he didn’t quite gain their favor.

“There was an apology, but no corrective action,” Motzer said. “(Hastings) did nothing to clear it up, but only complicated things for consumers.”

Brands often try to take advantage of the public, using strategic words and rhetoric that the public will accept as truth, if only because they don’t understand it entirely. But according to Motzer, that strategy does not make an effective apology.

“You need to speak in terms that people understand,” Motzer said. “There’s a business rationale, but no consumer rationale.”

The type of offense committed also plays a role in the public’s reception of the apology. Sterling’s and Paula Deen’s racist comments, for example, are different than Bill Clinton’s infidelity.

“(Clinton’s infidelity) is definitely scandalous, but it’s a little more forgivable,” Eden Ames, a freshman digital cinema student, said.

These days, celebrities drowning in scandal have a multitude of ways they can apologize, including television, Twitter, Facebook and personal letters to the victims. It’s not only what they say that’s important, but also the vehicle through which they say it.

“I think Twitter is better (than broadcast) because if they make a public statement, it probably came from a publicist,” Sara Ocytko, a freshmen English and communications student, said.

The question of authenticity is often present in conversations about celebrities, but it’s perhaps most important when it comes to their apologies. Ames said she doesn’t think broadcast apologies appear very genuine.

“If there was to be a sincere apology, I feel like it would have to be outside mass media,” Ames said.

While an apology is essential to saving face, there can also be backlash for apologizing too much or saying the wrong words. Paula Deen’s apology for using racist language verged on panicky rather than sincere.

Sterling followed a similar pattern by bringing up the people hurt by his comments. Sterling also hit the interview off with a buzz word — “racist” — that made the public hurriedly click on links. Motzer said racism is not only a heavy word, but also virtually unforgivable.

These hate-fueled tapes did not mark the first instance of racism for Sterling, who has battled housing discrimination lawsuits for his L.A. properties by 19 tenants in 2003, and again in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Justice.

For public figures like Sterling, who have histories pockmarked by scandal, the odds are against them from the beginning for convincing the public of their sincerity.

“Apologies tend to work better if the incident is an exception to the way you live your life,” Motzer said.