Notes & Essays

The Public Apology: When Should You Do It?

When it comes to public apologies, it's not always the advisable thing to do.
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Just one day after Senator Cynthia Villar backtracked on her words against the middle class, it was businessman Joey Concepcion’s turn to deliver a public apology. 

The Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship on Wednesday chastised a group of medical professionals who had criticized the private sector’s plan to use rapid test kits for employees returning to their workplaces following the easing of quarantine protocols in certain areas.

Problema nitong mga doctor, salita nang salita, wala namang ginagawa. Complain nang complain. Ang mangyayari dito kung magsasarado ulit yung ekonomiya ng Pilipinas, maraming mawawalan ng trabaho (The problem with these doctos is that they have much to say but aren’t exactly doing anything. They keep complaining. What will happen is that if the Philippine economy shuts down again a lot of people are going to lose ther jobs),” Concepcion said during a televised briefing.

“We can’t afford another lockdown. My appeal to all these doctors, if you have a better alternative, why don’t you tell us that better alternative?” he added.

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Concepcion earned the ire of social media users for his comments that were perceived to be callous and offensive against doctors and the medical community. He issued an apology later that same day.

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“First of all, I would like to put on record that I have nothing but the utmost gratitude and admiration for the doctors and frontliners who continue to do a great service for our country during this crisis,” Concepcion said in a statement. “I apologize if my words were perceived to criticize doctors in general. I hope we will be united in our efforts. With this, I extend my deepest thanks to all frontliners that continue to go beyond the call of duty for our people. We can and we will heal as one,” he added.

Earlier in the week, Senator Cynthia Villar caused an uproar when she said she didn’t believe the middle class should be receiving cash aid from the government. She said working employees were still receiving salaries from their employers, and that the governmen’s social amelioration program (SAP) is actually meant for the poor and unemployed.

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Villar quickly apologized the next day.

"My statements during the hearing yesterday [Tuesday] were not in any manner meant to be an affront to the hardworking middle class of the country,” she said. “I might have framed my questions and statements in such a manner that made it seem I was insensitive to the plight of the middle income sector. I am NOT. I am concerned and I look out for the welfare of the middle income workers. If I have offended anyone with my statements, I humbly apologize."

Incredibly, it’s not often that we hear of politicians and high-profile individuals expressing contrition in this country. For some reason, the default mode for those caught saying or doing things that are considered outrageous or offensive is often anger or denial, and almost never acceptance, grace, or remorse.

A story in the New York Times challenges the presumption that a person who apologizes will gain the sympathy, and, consequently, support of other people. On the contrary, writer Cass Sunstein, who is a professor of Harvard University, says that, based on her studies, “apologies do not increase support for people who have said or done offensive things.” 

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Sunstein cites a study by Richard Hanania, a research fellow at Columbia University, who found that apologies by public figures do not help and can sometimes even backfire. One possible reason for this is that an apology can be like a confession.

“It makes wrongdoing more salient. It can lead people to think: ‘We thought he was a jerk; now we know he is. He admits it!’”

Consider the mother of all apologies in local politics—at least in the last 50 years or so. When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo made her now infamous “I am sorry” speech, many people considered it an admission of guilt in the so-called “Hello Garci” scandal and used it against her. Instead of earning plaudits for her supposed bravery to express regret, it became a rallying cry for her detractors. Ultimately, even her supporters believe it was a mistake that she did it.

So when, then, should leaders apologize?

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A general principle for this, according to Barbara Kellerman in the Harvard Business Review, is that “Leaders will publicly apologize if and when they calculate the costs of doing so to be lower than the costs of not doing so. More precisely, leaders will apologize if and when they calculate that staying silent threatens a ‘current and future relationship’ between them and one or more key constituencies—followers, customers, stockholders, or the public.” 

PR professional Patti Malay says she personally prefers public apologies.

“People should not equate them to weakness,” says Malay, who is the SVP and general manager of Fleishman Hillard Manila, a public relations firm. “I don’t think they should equate to weakness. Just the opposite, in fact—if they are warranted and are motivated by genuine remorse, sincere apologies let you in on someone's strength, credibility, and integrity.”

Malay says that the problem with public apologies isn’t so much that they have to happen, it's that the hoped-for change in behavior doesn’t always follow.

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“Apologies, if left on their own, can be viewed as empty or meaningless, which could double down on the public's negative perception,” she says. “If a public apology is issued, what people are more concerned about is what happens after the apology—will things change? Will they get better? I’d like to hope that people do mean it when they say sorry, and they would think twice about going on the same path again."

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About The Author
Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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