New Rules for Public Apologies

May 1, 2019

Joe Biden’s apology to Anita Hill last week about his role in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing was not very effective—and, according to Hill, it cannot even be called an apology at all.

In a time-honored embrace of the passive voice, Biden expressed regret for “what happened to” Hill, as if her treatment at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee—chaired by Biden at the time—was an unforeseeable natural disaster instead of the result of a human man’s conscious decisions and actions. Biden’s communications team is obviously trying to walk the line between contrition and accountability very carefully here: he is a nice guy who “feels bad,” but he doesn’t want to go on the record that he was the one with the power to make different choices.

The problem is that non-apology apologies are as dated as an AOL email address—they go straight to the spam folder these days because in this new era of accountability it is meaningless to apologize without acknowledging the true harm you caused and articulating steps to make it right.

Obviously communicators must be conscious of legal issues and choose their words carefully, but assuming the offender in question actually wants to apologize properly, how can he or she avoid Uncle Joe’s embarrassing missteps?

Put a subject in that sentence. “I am sorry for . . .” can be a tough sentence to type (much less say aloud), but accepting responsibility for harmful actions is the only way to express sincere regret.

Name the personal harm. Expressing vague regret for “what happened” is an easy way out. Saying “I’m sorry you were offended” is worse and places the blame back on the victim. Authentic apologies name the specific harm the offender caused on the individual level. This is where empathy comes in: can you really put yourself in the shoes of the person you harmed and understand what they experienced?

Name the public harm. In just about every wrong committed in public, the harm goes beyond just the individual target of the bad behavior. In the case of Hill’s testimony, Biden didn’t just facilitate her public humiliation; he also communicated to the entire country that behavior like Thomas’ was not disqualifying, that women’s experiences have less value than men’s and, arguably, set the stage for Justice Kavanaugh to be confirmed 27 years later. Public actions have public—and often far-reaching—consequences. Did Biden intend to undermine a future generation’s faith in the government to deliver justice to victims of harassment and abuse? Maybe not, but he did it and a true apology would account for it.

Articulate plans to make it right. The last and most difficult aspect of a sincere apology is the remedy. What steps will you take you make it right? Often it’s helpful to listen to the person and people you harmed in order to understand what steps they would welcome and how you can start being part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem.

Biden swung and missed with his apology to Hill because he thought it was safer to dodge accountability than to remind everyone about the details of his lamentable behavior. Instead, his hedging just underscored what women and people of color already believe: that white men still do not understand or appreciate the experience of minorities in this country. Communicators, do better! Even in the context of a politically and legally charged situation, it is possible to get an apology right, and it’s a mistake not to try.