The Art Of The Apology: What Not To Say When Things Go Wrong

There were two high-profile apologies in the news this week — by the Leader of the Free World and by a Man Who Makes Yoga Pants.

Neither was well executed and neither was well received.

Let’s start with President Obama, who offered his belated apology on the rollout of the federal health exchange at the heart of the Affordable Care Act. After more than five weeks of shifting stories, blame and timelines, the president sat down with Chuck Todd to say “I’m sorry” for repeatedly saying some variation of, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it. Period.”

Sort of.

“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me,” he told NBC News. “We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and we are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”

Critics quickly and loudly objected to the president’s use of passive voice — and the fact that he claimed people found themselves with cancelled plans “based on assurances they got from me.” They pointed out that it wasn’t the assurances that cancelled the plans; it was the way Obama’s administration wrote the regulations that required insurance companies to cancel the plans.

In short, Obama didn’t own the cause of the pain. He only apologized for the “assurances” (which, by almost all accounts, are better known as “lies”).

Now, the Man Who Makes Yoga Pants.

Lululemon founder Chip Wilson got in hot water for blaming women’s bodies for well-publicized problems with his company’s yoga clothes, including see-through pants and pilling:

“Even our small sizes would fit an extra large, it’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there … over a period of time, and how much they use it,” he said.

Well, then.

This, of course, led to a predictable backlash — particularly on the company’s Facebook page, where women shared their views of the company and Wilson’s basically saying “You’re too fat to wear our clothes.”

Here’s one picked at random:

After the lack of respect for customers that Chip Wilson portrayed in his interview, I will never purchase anything from Lululemon again, nor will my daughters. A much better & more stylish product from an American company is Zella. Everyone check it out.

Properly chagrined, Wilson apologized:

“I’m sad. I’m really sad. I’m sad for the repercussions of my actions. I’m sad for the people of Lululemon who I care so much about that have really had to face the brunt of my action. I take responsibility for all that has occurred and the impact it has had on you. I’m sorry to have put you through all this.”

Wait, what? Wilson isn’t sorry for calling the women who made Lululemon a $1.4 billion company “fatties.” Instead, he’s sorry to the “people of Lululemon.” (I believe they are commonly known as Lululemonians.)

Wilson’s apology is actually significantly worse than President Obama’s apology. Obama apologized for the wrong thing, but it was still remarkable for a president to go on national television and apologize in the heat of a huge political fight.

Wilson? He apologized to the wrong people (Lululemonians) — and for the wrong thing (the impact his fat-shaming had on the good Lululemonians).Double failure.

So how should you handle an apology? First, an apology isn’t always warranted. Sometimes you or your organization is being criticized because opponents or critics simply don’t like you (politics) or what you do (food companies, for example).

But if you believe you have truly done wrong or that an apology is the only way to move forward, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be clear. Own it and get it behind you. If you don’t want to say “I’m sorry,” simply acknowledge you were wrong.
  2. Don’t wallow in the past. There’s no need to rehash everything you did wrong. We all know. That’s why you’re apologizing.
  3. Keep it short. The old adage “If you’re explaining, you’re losing” is absolutely true. Get in, get out, and get on to …
  4. Look ahead. Close with a promise to work every day to regain and rebuild the trust and confidence of customers, constituents or other interested parties.

With that, put it behind you and don’t let yourself or your organization be defined by the grievances of others. Critics will criticize. That’s what they do.

You need to get on with whatever it is you do — whether it is leading the free world or selling yoga pants to women, no matter their shape.

Tony Jewell is the founder of Boardwalk Public Relations in Ventnor, New Jersey. He is a former corporate and state and federal government spokesman. This post originally appeared in his blog, Life in the Affordable Care Act.

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GHDs For CheapDonna SoutarJoel Hassman, MDAnthony Maisano IIITony Jewell Recent comment authors
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GHDs For Cheap

GSIW chairwoman Yevonne Brannon is hoping the commission recommendations will cause the school board majority to halt their can legislate someone feelings but you can legislate their behavior, Brannon said.With diversity policy supporters so enthusiastic about the commission, it probably not asurprise that it being viewed with skepticism by the school board majority and their backers.School board member John Tedesco said Wake will still be one of the most diverse school districts in the state under community schools.School board chairman Ron Margiotta said state legislators should better spend their time giving school districts more funding flexibility.Terry Stoops, education policy… Read more »

Donna Soutar
Donna Soutar

Unfortunately, in both accounts there is truth in the statements. How this affects us however is different. President Obama is “sorry” and for the millions of working Americans who are tired of paying for programs that do not work, we once again feel the pain of our government. For my husband and I our same healthcare, through our employers increased 2.5% because of the changes. Yes, we are the fortunate ones who get to keep our insurance.., we just can’t afford to and we are not qualified for subsidies. In the case of Lululemon, we each have a choice of… Read more »

Joel Hassman, MD
Joel Hassman, MD

A sincere apology at least infers three things are at hand: 1. The person apologizes for making a mistake or error and accepts it as it occurred. 2. The mistake or error has been acknowledged and real efforts to be made to avoid replicating the problem created will ever happen again. 3. Problem solving is being put into action to try to rectify any and all complications from the problem so the disruptions can be minimized and people can feel there is a way to move forward in a positive, safe manner. Antisocial people do not do any of those… Read more »

Anthony Maisano III

Apologize. I think the GOP should APLOGIZE to the citizens of America. My Uncle Dante DeDomin**** is a long time, red shirt wearing, senior citizen GOP supporter. He was recently diagnosed with a liver disease, type unknown to me. He is a person that would say to me, ‘You didn’t get your government stimulus 2% payroll tax cut because you are a Barak Obama supporter.’ Existing pre-existing limitations would have eliminated him from all coverage plans… unless he used someone else’s blood or previous test sample, or someone could log in on the medical or insurance side and change someone’s… Read more »