From celebrities to presidents, what makes a good public apology?

This segment of "Pop Quiz" dives into what a public figure needs to make sure an apology really sits well with their audience.
Posted at 9:47 PM, Mar 15, 2023

The celebrity apology has become something of an art form itself. They have a familiar pattern and formulas the public can identify by now, with some bad and some actually being effective.

One of the most crucial pieces of making any apology effective is its sincerity, which is arguably the biggest factor in whether the person earns forgiveness. 

So how can celebrities convince the public they really mean what they say?

Part of the challenge, ironically, is how easy it is to make celebrity apologies these days, as philosophy professor and noted apology expert Alice MacLachlan points out.

"We used to trust public apologies more when they were more rare and when they seemed more risky, so in a sense, apologizing publicly as a practice is a victim of its own success," MacLachlan said. "Now as it's become more and more common to apologize publicly, such that we have like tropes of apologizing publicly, you can go online and see parodies of public apologies or step-by-step guides for how to write public apologies. There's even jokes about the medium that's used."

Social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram have given all celebrities and influencers a way to seem more authentic in apologies by connecting "directly" with their audience, as opposed to a more formal press release. This gave rise to infamous "Notes app apologies."

"The Notes app apology was originally very well-received because it has this feel like you're sharing the innermost thoughts, that this is a diary. But it's overused, significantly overused," said Eric Schiffer, chairman of Reputation Management Consultants.

Will Smith Posts Apology Video For Slapping Chris Rock
Chris Rock and Will Smith

Will Smith Posts Apology Video For Slapping Chris Rock

In a nearly six-minute video posted online, Smith reiterated that his behavior was "unacceptable" at the March 27 Academy Awards.


Some crisis management experts like Schiffer point out that if a celebrity is best known for communicating through a certain medium, like YouTube, apologizing in that medium can work. But of course, there's a cost to using a formula.

"The last thing you want is to have this look like it's drafted or concocted or strategized by others," Schiffer said. "It needs to be their voice, their words, their feelings, and it should be within a platform that they own."

Another big factor in a successful apology is timing — specifically speed. 

Over the last few decades, access to celebrities has gone up through the rise of tabloid media, television talk shows and, of course, social media. This not only gives celebrities more chances to make a mistake but also more chances to try and correct it. Plus, the expectation for immediate public apologies has grown too.

Public relations veteran Phil Lobel notes the hyper-fast news cycle changed the industry itself, including his work with A-listers.

"The real change in the PR business is when you only had a half a dozen outlets in the media or on TV, and there was, not this 24-hour, minute-by-minute cycle," Lobel said. "Of course, it was so much easier to control the dissemination of information on what our clients were, we were, putting out to the public. A rapid response is usually necessary to stay congruent with the news cycle, which is constant and never ending."

Finally, there is accountability: How much does an apology take responsibility? 

In a study on effective apologies, researchers at Ohio State University and Eastern Kentucky University found the best-received apologies had six components:

1. Expression of regret

2. Explanation of what went wrong

3. Acknowledgment of responsibility

4. Declaration of repentance

5. Offer of repair

6. Request for forgiveness

But the most important one, by far, was the acknowledgment of responsibility. Unfortunately, that can also be the trickiest part, especially for the dreaded public apology.

"I have one A-list star over the last decade that would not, irrespective, issue an apology... it just wasn't real for them. They couldn't do it," Schiffer said. "They would not accept responsibility because they didn't feel that they did anything wrong."

Lena Dunham Apologized For A Joke About NFL's Odell Beckham Jr.
Individual photos of Lena Dunham and Odell Beckham Jr.

Lena Dunham Apologized For A Joke About NFL's Odell Beckham Jr.

She called her assumptions about Beckham "narcissistic" and apologized for presenting them as fact.


Perhaps one of the most infamous examples came not from a celebrity Notes app apology, but a presidential address.

In 1998, then President Bill Clinton made his first apology of many when he admitted to the affair with Monica Lewinsky. Polling afterward found Americans were split on whether his apology was sufficient and if it evaded responsibility.

"It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible," he said. 

He did not directly apologize to Lewinsky at first nor specifically describe what the "it" was that he was taking responsibility for.

He went on to apologize multiple times, noting "I'm having to become quite an expert in the business of asking for forgiveness." He's still having to address the questionable apology as late as 2018.

Ed Battistella, a linguist, has written extensively on the nature of apologies as well as insults in politics. 

"Bill Clinton is an interesting example because he was so much more eloquent when he was apologizing for national wrongs," Battistella said. "But when it came to his own behavior, he had some more skin in the game shame-wise, and it took him, I think, about five tries to really get a serviceable apology. I think American culture is very, sort of, hooked on this idea that an apology is a sign of weakness."

Battistella pointed to the John Wayne movie "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" as a formative example of this idea in pop culture. Wayne's character has a popular catchphrase, "Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness," which often gets attributed to the actor himself.

Apologizing has also been rather gendered in American culture, with the idea that masculinity and "toughness" means never having to say you're sorry. (Though it's worth noting: Later in that same movie, John Wayne's character reassures someone about the importance of taking responsibility.)

In short, a celebrity who needs to publicly apologize needs to be sincere and not generic, while acknowledging the responsibility as specifically as possible. The person would also want to do it quickly after getting called out.

These public apologies are different from personal ones for a lot of reasons: There's a wider audience, it's about image repair, and there isn't that sort of goodwill one would when apologizing to a friend or family member. It takes extra hard work to earn trust.

But in many ways, the parts what makes a good public apology are just as relevant for anyone else.