“I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private.”
Public Figures Apologizing
Have you ever considered all the gaffes, screw-ups, and one liners celebrities and politicians have committed over the past fifty years? From baseball players to American presidents, few are safe from the scrutiny of the public eye. Inevitably, somewhere along the line even the most polished professional will have an embarrassing incident or worse, a scandal.
Now public scandals are not always career ending, depending on the apology the public is very willing to forgive. However, give a poor apology and you’ll see just how truly vicious the media can become.
Apologies and excuses almost always follow mistakes and misdeeds. After all–it’s human nature to blame others or “unfair” circumstances. And like train wrecks, people love watching people say “I’m sorry”. Consider a few of the following public apologies:
In 2009, Michael Vick’s apology for his involvement with a dog fighting operation generated 1.6 million hits. R& B singer Chris Brown’s apology for domestic assault on his girlfriend Rihanna generated 1.2 million hits. And, Reverend Jesse Jackson’s apology for claiming he wanted to castrate Barack Obama yielded 378,000 hits.
Fortunately some of America’s more newsworthy events dwarf these numbers, with a video of the damage from the devastating 2011 tsunami in Japan generating 18 million hits, and Obama’s speech regarding the death of Osama Bin Laden generated 3.5 million hits. Although, not conclusive because of the many variables that contribute to the viral nature of certain YouTube videos, it does provide some evidence that public apologies are often consumed with the same level of enthusiasm as other more seemingly prominent events.
So if you find it such a joy to watch people squirm while apologizing on national television, imagine the fun you could be having if you knew the various strategies these same people use to deflect blame and justify their poor behavior. Interested? Well, welcome to the world of Apologia.
Academics utilize the term apologia as opposed to simply “apology” because the term better reflects the idea that there are a great many more strategies that can be utilized than simply to take responsibility for ones actions–i.e. to apologize. In a recent study by SUU’s Dr. Kevin Stein, it was found that the most frequently used strategies were mortification or taking responsibility (48%), bolstering or offsetting the damage through self praise (11%), and corrective action or repairing the damage (9%). Amazingly, there are twelve more strategies public figures use to explain their taboo behavior. Let’s briefly cover a couple of them.
Mortification occurs when the accused individual takes responsibility for his/her actions. For example, Harry Whittington offered this mortification after Vice-President Dick Cheney shot him (yes, you heard that correctly) while on a quail hunt in Texas:
“My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice-President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week. We send our love and respect to them as they deal with situations that are much more serious than what we’ve had this week. And, we hope that he will continue to come to Texas and seek the relaxation that he deserves.”
While the fact that Whittington apologized for being shot seems ridiculous, it is nevertheless an example of an individual taking responsibility for the harm that was caused.
Bolstering occurs when the accused individual attempts to counterbalance or offset the audience’s displeasure by associating him/herself with something positive. For example, former Major League pitcher Roger Clemens bolstered his image during a congressional hearing on his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs:
“If I am guilty of anything, it is being too trusting of everyone, wanting to see the best in everyone, and being nice to everyone. If I’m considered to be ignorant in that, then so be it.”
My personal favorite comes from Dominos Pizza. Patrick Doyle, CEO of Dominos Pizza, also used bolstering as he discussed a YouTube video in which employees were seen contaminating food by putting it up their noses (among other nasty things):
“It sickens me that the actions of two individuals could impact our great system. Where 125,000 men and women work for local business owners around the U.S. and in more than 60 countries around the world, we take tremendous pride in crafting delicious food that they deliver to you everyday.”
Here, Patrick Doyle and Roger Clemens both tout their redeeming qualities in an effort to offset the damage caused. Whether we actually believe that Dominos Pizza makes “delicious food” is left up to the judgment of the target audience.
Come Hear More at Pizza & Politics
These two techniques represent only portions of the full fifteen strategies, but from them you can see that we humans will do and say anything to get out of trouble. This week at Pizza and Politics, Dr. Kevin Stein will be stopping by to show some of the more funny examples of failed apologia. It will be rare opportunity to hear from Dr. Stein in such a personal, informal setting. Be sure to stop by and participate in his presentation. Or don’t, whichever it is your call. If you can’t make it though, be sure to have a good excuse and apology handy when we call you out for missing!
Jay Sorensen is a member of the Executive Council and is currently enrolled in the Master’s of Professional Communication Program at Southern Utah University. He will be traveling to China this fall to study with Professor Stein at the Hunan Normal University.
Excerpts from the Distinguished Faculty Lecture at SUU, September 13, 2011 were used with express permission from Dr. Kevin Stein.
Photography credit to This Day in Quotes, Straight from The A, NPR, and Sports Illustrated.