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When apologizing makes no sense

December 2, 2014, 10:27 PM UTC
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Photograph by Nigel Carse — Getty Images

You’ve got a public relations crisis.

You, or your company, has done something foolish or insensitive. And it’s gone viral on the Internet. There’s now a “storm” and a “backlash” in the Twitterverse and the blogosphere.

What should you do?

You should apologize, right? Admit your error, apologize to everyone, and then move on, yes?

Well, that’s what Public Relations 101 says. But is it really the best course of action any more?

Everyone will have to consider their own, unique circumstances. But some very high profile and controversial public relations flaps do at least cast some doubt on the conventional wisdom.

This week, Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for a Republican congressman from Tennessee, did exactly what she was supposed to do after making an apparent gaffe.

Lauten had criticized the President Obama’s daughters on Facebook last week, complaining that they had dressed inappropriately while appearing at the White House “turkey pardoning” event.

When her comments sparked outrage, Lauten posted the following apology: “After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents and re-reading my words online, I can see more clearly how hurtful my words were. Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart. Furthermore, I’d like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.”

The result? She lost her job, and got absolutely no points from anyone for her apology.

On the contrary, the vitriol spewed out against her on Twitter actually grew worse. “Bitch… tramp… criminal…” were the more publishable remarks. Long after she had posted her apology, a website dragged up embarrassing news that she had been caught shoplifting when she was 17.

So, why didn’t the apology do the trick? Some complained that Lauten’s expression of regret wasn’t enough. The problem is critics always say that.

Two years ago, the journalist Fareed Zakaria publicly apologized “unreservedly” for an instance of plagiarism. The result? He was suspended by CNN and resigned his position as a trustee of Yale’s governing body.

Last summer, Zakaria was criticized online for what appeared to be a far more serious example of alleged plagiarism. But he denied everything, dismissed the accusations, and rode out the storm.

In 2007, Don Imus apologized profusely and repeatedly for an on-air gaffe about the Rutgers’ womens’ basketball team. His apologies sparked 10 days of national hysteria and he lost his job.

“He should have said, ‘F–k you, it was a joke,’” said his rival, Howard Stern.

In 2012, Harvard professor and conservative gadfly Niall Ferguson published a polemic against President Obama that made some highly debatable uses of data. He came under serious criticism. Some even called on Harvard to review Ferguson’s position. Ferguson’s response? He doubled down on his argument, and returned fire on his critics for good measure. He rode out the storm comfortably.

“Never say you’re sorry,” a senior public relations executive admitted to me the other day, but only on the condition of anonymity. Absolutely no one wants to admit this in public.

The trouble is, when you apologize, you admit guilt. And that throws away any chance of a defense. Your supporters have nowhere to go.

This is how Commentary Magazine began an article about Zakaria during his first plagiarism brouhaha: “There is now little question that Fareed Zakaria is guilty of plagiarism. He has admitted copying a portion of a New Yorker essay and apologized.”

Indeed, when I tried to question the seriousness of Zakaria’s offense in public at the time, the most common pushback I received was, “He’s admitted it—what’s your problem?”

The rule applies to the trivial and the serious. I know a writer who apologized for a very small error on the command of his editor. His critics promptly used his apology against him, and the editor, admitting her own cowardice, fired him anyway.

Michael Jackson denied the allegations levied against him. Bill Cosby is denying those against him today. If you think the two entertainers suffered serious public relations reversals, imagine what they would have been like if they admitted that the alleged accusations were accurate.

The Internet has changed the game. There are no longer any gatekeepers. There are no longer any rules of civility or reason. Even if you persuade a few TV producers and editors and writers with your apology, so what? They’ll be drowned out by the chaos and cacophony online. (This week on Twitter, people were showering Lauten with spiteful epithets and then boasting that they were taking a stand against “hate speech” and “cyberbullying.”)

There’s no reason to think the “Twitterverse” is more democratic than anywhere else. There is no established process. There are no rules of debate. The conversation, such as it is, is drowned out by the loudest, angriest voices. And as we all know, and a recent study confirmed, online conversations are often dominated by a small, unrepresentative few, anyway (the University of Iowa, in a study of one of the Internet’s biggest sites, Yahoo Finance, found that 50% of all comments came from just 3% of the commenters—and 75% came from just 11% of them.)

Clearly, if you are in a completely untenable situation you are going to have no choice but to apologize. But that is less often the case than we often suppose.

Lauten probably would have been better off if she had refused to back down. Instead, for example, she might have pointed out that president carter’s daughter Amy was widely criticized in the media many years ago for reading a book at a white house dinner, when she was only nine years old. (and yes, there was a big media uproar at the time). Lauten could have attacked others in the media for giving teenagers a green light to turn up to their parents’ business functions in cargo pants, t-shirts, and shorts.

Maybe this wouldn’t have worked. What we do know is that Lauten followed conventional wisdom, and it got her absolutely nothing.