Apologies as Apologia Strategy

Apologies have become a common place in modern public relations. When a crisis breaks due to some accident, mishap, or scandal; we can expect that someone, the affected person, the CEO of the Company, the director of the institution, will appear in one – or in several – media offering his/her apologies to the possible victim, or victims of the wrongdoing, or to the public in general. The apology seems to be a must as apologia strategy in crisis situations. In view of the frequency and intensity of this PR practice, we could talk about a new modality of pseudo-event. The figures who are subjected to the public scrutiny organize a public expiation to show their concern, sorrow or remorse for the annoyances, catastrophes or tragedies they or the organization they represent may have caused.

The strong power of the apology is based, on the one hand, on the effective appeal to the emotions. On the other hand, they are able to create an emotional connection with the audience because of the exceptionality of the act. The apology is an emotional self-chastisement, which confronts us with deeply rooted fears, unconscious desires, and basic necessities. When someone apologizes in public, we are – probably unconsciously – feeling for the personal struggles he or she is going through. We can imagine these struggles and sympathize with whom may be experiencing the ordeal. The exceptionality of the apology is further the reason for its news value. The extreme emotional loading of a public atonement is powerful enough to create the climax of a media crisis, to function as peak of the media life of any given scandal.

If the apology loses its exceptional character and becomes a fashion, if anyone, at any time, and for any given reason is willing to broadcast his/her regret and ask for forgiveness through the media, then, necessarily, the apology will lose all its power and fail to have the intended emotional effect. The abuse of the apology will end neutralizing it. The public demonstration of regret, when, furthermore, is accompanied with statements that try to shift the responsibility, to trivialize or to minimize the guilt, or even to blame someone else, can be perceived by the public as PR maneuver, as just another more of the numerous spin moves that are constantly trying to shape the virtual reality delivered by the mass media. Reaching this point, the apology might provoke a boomerang-effect: it will even hurt the trust on the organization or the individual because will cast shadows over the authenticity of the gesture among the broad public.

The saturation – that seems evident - might dissolve the emotional power of apologies and thus, their effectiveness to restore the public image of individuals or organizations. The modern fashion of apologizing for deeds and actions that took place in the past greatly contributes to this saturation. Without judging the moral quality, that is the sincerity of the apology, it is ethically questionable to apologize for the behavior of people or institutions in past times. When we do so, we are usurping a moral option that does not belong to us. The spatio-temporal coordinates of our existence limit, according to Michel Foucault, our use of the language, and through this, they shape our knowledge and our perception of the world around us. To extrapolate moral standards is a form of arbitrariness. It is also the assumption of absolute moral values that might apply regardless of time and space. The faith in such absolute moral values leads to their hypertrophy, according to Arnold Gehlen, which might also generate aggression. Without being conscious of it, every individual is, as Emile Durkheim stated, victim and instrument of the social streams through which our existence flows away.