The Art Of The Public Apology

In this booking photo released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, actor-director Mel Gibson
In this booking photo released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, actor-director Mel Gibson is seen in a booking photo taken Friday, July 28, 2006.
AP Photo/LA County Sheriffs Dept.

There are not many sights sorrier than a public figure apologizing for bad behavior, but these days it's a sight that is all too familiar. Just this past week, it was Sen. John Kerry's turn to apologize for what he said was a botched joke about Americans fighting in Iraq.

Before him, it was Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who got caught sending sexually explicit e-mails and said sorry through his lawyer.

"Mark explicitly reaffirms his responsibility of concern and remorse," Foley's lawyer said.

Actor Mel Gibson apologized for making anti-Semitic remarks when he was arrested for drunk driving.

"I have apologized more than anyone else," Gibson told ABC News' "Good Morning America." "I don't believe that Jews are responsible for all the wars in this world. That's an absurd drunken statement."

Paul Slansky, author of the book "My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies and the Appalling Behavior That Inspired Them," said there have been more than 200 public apologies in 2006. He said there were 50 in October alone.

"It is a new American ritual we have seen over the years develop," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin. "In the last 25 years it has really come into its own where people make their mistakes and they are forced to atone publicly. Usually people are saying I'm sorry, but what they are really saying is, 'I'm sorry I got caught.' Of course they are. That part is believable."

The public confessional is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the age of television, indiscretions could be hidden. There was even an era when the press actually protected public figures — never disclosing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's disability or President John Kennedy's affairs. But in 1952 President Richard Nixon managed to turn a confession on national TV to his advantage in the famous "Checkers" speech he made while a candidate for vice president. Nixon was mired in a scandal over illegal campaign contributions and admitted that he had accepted a gift of a puppy. He said we wouldn't give it back.

"Our little girl Tricia — the 6 year old — named it Checkers," he told the nation then. "And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it."

The public loved it and Nixon won the nation's sympathy and saved his career (at least for the time being).

That speech set the stage, in a way helping other politicians, movie stars and even corporations realize that to err is human, to apologize on TV is divine.

"We love to see people who are on these enormous pedestals and then have 'em fall off," said Jack Trout, who counsels clients on the correct way to say sorry. "I mean that's terrific. We love that kind of stuff.

"It's called the law of candor," he said. "And it goes like this: admit a negative to get a positive. In other words, you've gotta be candid. Throw it right on the table and if you set it up properly, then you can move into getting a positive."

Trout said that the company Johnson & Johnson apologized effectively after seven people died upon taking Tylenol tainted with the poison cyanide in 1982.

"They jumped out, admitted there was a problem here and said, 'Here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna rip everything off store shelves, we're gonna essentially change our packaging. It's not gonna be easy to get into this stuff anymore,'" he said. "And America said, 'That's terrific, that's wonderful' back to Tylenol, and the brand really didn't get hit."

Trout said Martha Stewart botched her public apology because she never quite confessed to an insider trading deal.

"I mean Martha Stewart instantly should have said, 'You know, I was silly. You know that whole stock thing was silly. I never should have done that,'" he said. "Just admit it and get on with it. Avoid the cover-up."

According to Mike Sitrick, who charges more than $400 an hour for his advice on apologizing, there are guidelines to follow if you are a public figure:

A) Try not to make a mistake.
B) If you make a mistake, be brutally honest about it.
C) Never get into any sort of cover-up mode because that will cause you more trouble than the incident itself.