Words by Clare Coulter
Analysis by Elyse Gatt
February can be a notoriously quiet month on media street, but the smoke from New Year’s fireworks had barely blown out of Sydney Harbour when the first big political controversy of 2023 hit the papers.
New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet publicly admitted to, and apologised for, wearing a Nazi costume to his 21st birthday party.
Though the costume gaffe occurred 20 years ago and Perrottet argues he was a “naïve young man”, wearing a Nazi costume is a reprehensible act given the horrors of World War II and the inconceivable pain it caused the Jewish community.
That said, Perrottet was on the front foot from the beginning. He called a press conference where he revealed he’d worn the costume, and immediately apologised.
The way he handled the controversy is an example of public apology best practice, and we often recommend that our clients take a similar approach when faced with sensitive issues that affect many different stakeholders.
What is public apology best practice?
When it comes to public apology best practice, Apologies of the Rich and Famous, is one of the most insightful pieces of research.
In the paper, Karen Cerulo, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, and Janet Ruane, a professor emerita of sociology at Montclair State University, outline a blueprint for making an effective apology.
Their approach is informed by analysis of public sentiment data gathered after 183 different apologies from celebrities and business leaders.
Cerulo and Ruane’s work indicates that a few key elements can make or break an apology. They include:
- Apologising as soon as possible.
- Stating the most important information at the start and end of the apology.
- Apologising for what happened, NOT for how people felt.
- Avoiding an ‘offender-driven’ apology, which occurs when the apologiser draws unnecessary attention to themselves. Instead, focus on the affected parties.
- Assuring your audience that you are working hard so that the incident does not happen again.
While their findings are incredibly insightful, Cerulo and Ruane aren’t the only academics worth paying attention to.
Timothy Coombs’ well-known framework called Situational Crisis Communications Theory (SCCT) is also relevant to determining your handling strategy.
According to SCCT, for an individual or an organisation to effectively respond to a crisis, they must first understand what level of culpability is being attributed to them by their stakeholders and the public.
It doesn’t matter whether an individual or an organisation thinks they are accountable or not.
What matters is the perceptions of their key stakeholders and the public.
Once their level of responsibility has been worked out, an individual or organisation can then use tailored post-crisis communication, appropriate for that specific attribution of responsibility, to respond to the situation and repair their reputation; a ‘horses for courses’ framework.
Of course, there are many instances where organisations or individuals respond to a controversial incident by not apologising at all.
Perhaps the best explanation for this tactic is that by refusing to apologise, organisations can attempt fly under the radar. In our 24/7 news cycle, saying nothing can mean minimal reporting, or none, and can leave the perpetrator free of blame.
While this tactic works in some specific examples, refusing to apologise can be extremely damaging to stakeholders that experienced the harm. Restorative practice theory looks at why this is the case.
Restorative practice brings those responsible for a controversy and those damaged by the incident into communication so that the victim can be acknowledged, and the harm repaired. When individuals or organisations engage in restorative practice by apologising, they are stepping in the right direction to validate the victim’s pain and begin a fresh narrative.
You can probably think of a handful of big apologies in a matter of seconds. To put these theories to the test, we’ve taken three prominent examples from the past couple of years.
The good, the bad, and the passive
Perrottet’s approach to the 21st birthday costume controversy was a strong public apology, which is unsurprising given just how much it aligns with the steps provided by Cerulo and Ruane.
He responded quickly by calling a press conference to apologise two days after he had a conversation with a Cabinet colleague about the costume.
He took full responsibility for the act and didn’t try to shift blame.
And he acknowledged groups affected most by the incident, especially the Australian Jewish community, Holocaust survivors, and war veterans.
In short, Perrottet was able to get on the front-foot, answer journalists’ questions before they had asked them, control the narrative and decrease the risk of misinformation and gossip.
Perrottet’s considered approach will likely result in the best possible outcome in the court of public opinion.
It might not be enough to save him come March’s NSW State Election, but only time will tell.
Rio Tinto’s apology for destroying two ancient and sacred rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge was almost as disastrous as the blasts themselves.
While Rio Tinto’s actions were technically legal, the caves contained evidence of human habitation dating back 26,000 years. The destruction caused deep distress for the Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.
Rio Tinto responded to the incident relatively quickly, releasing a media statement three days after the sacred sites were destroyed, but they made the detrimental mistake of trying to avoid responsibility by shifting the blame to Traditional Owners.
Their approach contravened everything we know from Cerulo and Ruane, and from Coombs’ theory.
Even though Rio Tinto was legally allowed to destroy the caves, the company was still deemed responsible by the public and its key stakeholders.
Diverting blame and responsibility to the Traditional Owners was one of the worst approaches that Rio Tinto could have taken, and it has caused tremendous damage to the company’s brand.
Though they are harder to assess, non-apologies can be just as damaging as poor ones.
Scott Morrison’s failure to say sorry for not attending the Women’s March4Justice protest held in Canberra last year was one recent example.
The aim of the rally was to protest gendered violence following rape allegations, most notably against former Attorney-General Christian Porter and a former Liberal staffer.
Given the context of the march, Morrison should have attended in person to show his support for the cause.
Instead of apologising for not showing up, Morrison blamed his busy schedule for his absence and declared it a “triumph of democracy” that the protestors weren’t “met with bullets” outside Parliament House.
Morrison’s inappropriate non-apology was slammed by the public and left many people outraged and upset.
By refusing to apologise for not supporting March4Justice, Morrison also refused to validate the pain felt by many Australian women.
We can help
Owning your mistakes should be a part of everyday life.
While it’s never easy, we know from experience that the theories used in this analysis serve as a strong foundation for undertaking a public apology.
As a specialised public relations agency our team are well-versed on the nuances of these frameworks, so we know how to use apology theory effectively to avoid reputational damage and begin a restorative journey with your affected stakeholders.
Think this may help your company? Don’t hesitate to reach out!