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The Power of an Apology

I’m often asked for examples of apologies and have trouble sharing solid samples. A sincere apology in higher education, politics, pop culture or everyday life is rare. There are many attempts that miss the mark because they fall short of accepting responsibility, misinterpret what needs to addressed or deflect blame. An apology only works if it is sincere, addresses the hurt or mistake and discusses future improvements.
For that reason, below are two of the best I’ve seen this year. Neither is perfect, but perfection is a hard mark to hit.
For the first video below (coverage of the Asiana plane crash), watch all the way to the end of the clip (total of three segments).
The second clip doesn’t get to a full apology- no responsibility was taken and blame was shifted from the station to the NTSB. It’s important to note the first apology was issued at the end of the originating newscast while the second was issued in a later newscast. The additional time allowed the station to write something thoughtful and appropriate. As a result, the third clip gets to that full apology. The station apologizes, shares insight on what happened, includes the involvement of the NTSB in the error while concurrently taking full responsibility for their actions, and explains how they will employ stronger fact checking in the future.

In the second video, Reese Witherspoon appears sorry, apologizes repeatedly and humanizes her actions. We may not condone her behavior, but she shares enough detail to help us empathize with what she was thinking and feeling while intoxicated. She was lucky to have a sympathetic interviewer in George Stephanopoulos- leaders in higher education should work with their media relations staff to solicit a friendly reporter for similar understanding. A sympathetic ear doesn’t mean they won’t ask you tough questions, but it does mean they may be more receptive to your answers.
It is disheartening to think that sincere apologies are as rare as unicorns. Admitting responsibility or being accountable may be difficult, but if done correctly the benefits of sincerity will outweigh the risks. For both clips, each party had something to lose in either the court of public opinion and/or in the court of law. But, as we have seen over and over again, that vulnerability prevents many others from issuing an apology and preventing needed healing.