Crafting Apologies to Solve Public Relations Crises

By Samantha Horrocks, Jana Karns, Linh Lam, Julia Mayuga

Saying sorry isn’t always an easy thing to do. Admitting wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness puts us all in an uncomfortable and vulnerable position, but it is a necessary action to reestablish trust, relationships and morality. From a public relations point of view, celebrities, influencers, politicians, governments and companies all must take apologies extremely seriously and strategically when they fall from public favor. In the modern age of media and cancel culture, developing the correct apology strategy for audiences, constituents or customers has become difficult terrain. People can be extremely ruthless when it comes to forgiveness. This is a topic that we believe must be explored more in order to find out what strategies are the most effective while also trying to maintain ethics. To begin our research, we interviewed Professor Cylor Spaulding and discussed his past experience with drafting apologies for corporations.

Professor Cylor Spaulding, Department of Communications California State University

Cylor Spaulding currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. He also conducts research centered on public relations and how it intersects with history, religion, and the LQBTQ+ community. Dr. Spaulding was previously the faculty director for Georgetown University’s graduate public relations program. There, he hired, evaluated, and oversaw faculty and helped develop curriculum, as well as teaching his own courses. His qualifications come from his decade of experience in the PR industry at several agencies such as Rogers & Cowan, Weber Shandwick, and The Martz Agency. In these roles, he managed analyst relations, media relations, and consumer relations campaigns for local, national, and international clients like Microsoft, Activison, The Hazelden Foundation, Razer and Gallagher & Kennedy.

Spaulding received his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Arizona State University in 2002 and his Master of Arts in Strategic Public Relations from the University of Southern California in 2005. He gained some experience in the field before he went on to earn his Ph.D. in Communications from the University in Miami in 2013, where he began teaching Public Relations courses. After completing his doctorate, Dr. Spaulding earned a position as Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Towson University. In 2015, he was the recipient of the Educator of the Year award from the Public Relation Society of America- Maryland. He has contributed to writing seven publications including books and journals.

Professor Cylor Spaulding, Department of Communications

California State University, Fullerton

Elements of a Good Apology

According to Spaulding, authenticity and transparency are imperative to a good public relations apology. Authenticity reflects the morality and values within the company. Transparency is being open and honest about apparent short-comings. According to Dr. Spaulding’s experience in the corporate world, audiences always want the truth from brands they interact with. This makes a strong impression about the morality of the company. Being transparent with your audiences retracts the idea that the company is hiding information. Through a formal apology, the situation, problem, and solution should be presented in a well thought-out statement with both of these elements in mind.

As public relations has inherent ethics, it’s vital the company or representing agency honors the code of ethics. And along with transparency and authenticity, you must then follow up with action. It’s not just about feeling remorseful; real changes and initiatives must be implemented. This brings the apology home after using the two main elements that are needed. Spaulding discussed a crisis with Starbucks as a perfect example of this.

In 2018, two black men were wrongfully arrested in a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The manager called the police since they had not bought anything, but they were really just waiting for another person to join them. Many people in the store and those who saw the widely shared video immediately identified this as racial discrimination. This sparked a wave of protests and Starbucks boycotts around the nation. After a formal apology by the CEO, the company closed thousands of corporate-owned stores to retrain staff in racial bias and discrimination in response to the scandal. This definitely helped with public favor since the apology was not just empty words. Starbucks was able to save face fare more because of it. To prove authentic motives, taking action after addressing an issue can mend the relationship between the public and the party apologizing.

Creator: Mark Makela for Time Magazine

Knowing Your Audience

Apologies can be quite objective depending on what type of audience you have. According to Spaulding, depending on what the situation is and how big the organization, whether it is a public crisis or not, the effort put into the apology should be different. The key to making a good public apology is to have a good understanding of your audience and the standards that they have. However, it is important to keep in mind that even after ticking every single step for the perfect apology, based on your audience, success might be almost impossible to achieve.

For example, in the interview, Professor Spaulding mentioned the Larry Craig scandal. Larry Craig was a Republican United States Senator from Idaho who was arrested after being involved in gay sexual misconduct in a restroom. Even though Craig had made a public apology and stated that he was not gay and would not do such things, his constituents were still not happy. As a result, Craig lost his reputation and ended his political career. In this case, the audiences’ viewpoints and morals were very hard to persuade. This is why understanding your audience is extremely important and there are some things one just cannot come back from. 

Full student interview with Cylor Spaulding conducted by Julia Mayuga

Overall, public apologies are growing increasingly more difficult. There is no real way to be perfect because everyone wants something different and everyone wants it to feel as genuine as possible. We hope that with more exploration on the topic and research on past public apologies that were successful or total failures will help us slowly learn to gage the most effective public apology strategy. There has to be more specific elements to give the subject advantage and there has to be pattern of downfalls to look out for. We hope to have a stronger grasp of public apologies by the end of our research.

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