A good apology can go along way to salvaging a reputation during a crisis.
But, as regular readers of this blog will know, not all apologies are created equally.
Many fail to hit the mark and ‘sorry’ really does seem to be the hardest word to say – effectively at least.
Few of the crisis media management apologies we have covered will have lasted anything like the five minute one we saw earlier this week.
It came as Ellen DeGeneres opened the latest series of her talk show and addressed the allegations of a “toxic” work environment that went public over the summer.
Today we’re starting a new chapter. pic.twitter.com/PvpZXnXLv5— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) September 21, 2020
It is an apology that has generated a lot of press and social media coverage. Is there anything that others can learn from it?
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised considering Ellen’s comedy background, but this was an apology filled with jokes.
After a summer of allegations and reports about the workforce culture at the show - including claims of misconduct and sexual harassment - the presenter began by saying: “How was everybody’s summer? Good? Mine was great. Super terrific.”
And there were further jokes as she went through the apology.
But humour and apologies rarely go well together.
While there were laughs from the show’s virtual audience, many others will have seen it as an attempt to make light of the situation.
How many people watched Ellen’s show yesterday? Her apology felt to me like she was not really taking the situation very serious. There was nothing funny in what happened and her joking was inappropriate. Was she just trying to save her show?— Christine (@ChrisMamaWolf) September 22, 2020
And given the seriousness of some of those allegations, this approach suggests questionable judgement. It also seemed to take away from the sincerity of the apology.
A Buzzfeed report suggests that the comedy didn’t go down well with some of the former workers of the show, with one saying “Not only did Ellen turn my trauma, turn our traumas, into a joke, she somehow managed to make this about her. “
It is difficult to think of any instances where humour has worked well when either a brand or an individual has needed to say sorry.
The only one I can recall is KFC and the redesigned FCK logo it used in adverts in several national newspapers to apologise for a crisis that saw many of its restaurants close because they ran out of chicken.
This was an apology that appeared carefully rehearsed and heavily scripted.
And some of the wording used is particularly interesting.
This bit stood out for me: “I learned that things happened here that never should’ve happened. I take that very seriously and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected. I know I am in a position of privilege and power and I know with that comes responsibility and I take responsibility for what happens.”
The phrase “I learned” is interesting. It distances the presenter from what has happened, deflects the blame on to others, and takes away some of the ownership of the issues.
It feels similar to the “I’m sorry if” non-apology we sometimes see used when brands feel they should apologise even though they don’t think they have done anything wrong.
On our crisis media management courses, we talk about the importance of leaders being accountable for what has put them in the spotlight and taking ownership, regardless of whether it was directly caused by their actions.
The other issue with the wording is that having already made several jokes about the situation, the phrase “I take that very seriously” is being asked to work much harder to be believed.
Show don’t tell
Later on, in her apology monologue, Ellen touched on changes being made in response to the allegations.
She said: “We have had a lot of conversations over the last few weeks about our show, our workplace and what we want for the future.
“We have made the necessary changes and today we are starting a new chapter.”
Great. What are they?
Action is an important part of a crisis apology. But without any examples of what these changes are, or the steps that have been taken, this is all pretty meaningless.
It is rhetoric aimed at suggesting they have changed and lessons have been learnt. But for it to work, you need to show us that you have changed, not just tell us.
We don't need huge amounts of detail, but we do need something to substantiate that improvements have been made.
You might think the focus of this 5-minute apology would be the victims – the people who had come forward and told their stories about what they had encountered in this workplace.
But they barely got a mention apart from “I am so sorry to the people who were affected.”
For much of the rest of the time, the focus was on Ellen, including talking about the difficulty of living up to her nickname as the ‘be kind lady’ and insisting that she is the person you see on TV.
She said: “The truth is I am that person that you see on TV. I am also a lot of other things. Sometimes I get sad. I get mad. I get anxious. I get frustrated. I get impatient. And I am working on all of that. I am a work in progress. And I am especially working on the impatience thing. And it's not going well because it's not happening fast enough, I will tell you that.”
Again, the judgement here seems flawed. The focus should be on the victims, the behaviours they have encountered and the steps being taken to ensure others aren’t put in a similar situation.
Ellen’s apology:— Crutnacker (@Crutnacker) September 21, 2020
1) I had no idea the place and people I go to who work for me were in a toxic environment.
2) I’m not good enough an actor to fake nice.
3) I’m taking this so seriously I’m throwing in a bunch of jokes so my audience will validate I’m a good person.
But it wasn’t all bad.
One thing I did like was that the presenter did acknowledge what had caused her and her programme to be in the spotlight – “allegations of a toxic work environment.” Some may feel that phrase glosses over the detail, but it is more specific than some apologies we have seen.
Often organisations seem to want to avoid saying what they are apologising for and use vague language which makes them appear evasive and defensive.
Starbucks, for example, did plenty right with its response when it found itself at the centre of a race storm. But its initial statement was packed with phrases like ‘these matters’ and ‘incidents’ rather than any mention of race.
When United Airlines found itself in crisis media management mode after footage emerged of a bloodied passenger being pulled off one of its flights, it used the word ‘re-accommodate’ to describe what had happened (physically removing a passenger from his seat).
For an apology to work it needs to acknowledge what the problem is rather than try to talk around it – or play it down - with meaningless phrases.
Time will tell if this apology works for Ellen’s audience - as well as the sponsors and advertisers - and whether the media will eventually move away from the allegations that have engulfed the show.
But as apologies go, there are plenty of lesson others can learn from this response and improve upon when they find themselves in the crisis spotlight.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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