Public Relations: The Art of a Killer Apology – Taking A Lesson in PR from Justin Bieber,_2012.jpg,_2012.jpg

by PR Strategist Danielle Ford

In June, five-year-old footage came out of a younger Justin Bieber telling a racist joke.

It was utterly tasteless, and I’m not going to link to it here, though Google can point the curious in the right direction.

While Justin Bieber has been in the news for quite a few scandals and instances of “tasteless behavior” of late, many of which his inept and defensive responses have fueled into further bad press, this is one story he handled with grace. He apologized immediately, in a striking contrast to the 15-year-old in the video, rang sincere, contrite and all grown up. As far as apologies in public scandals go, this one makes a great template for stars and other figures in hot water.

So what are the keys to a great apology?

1. Acknowledge Wrongdoing and Accept Responsibility 

What not to do:

“I’m sorry you’re feeling hurt because you didn’t like my joke.”
“I told that joke when I was just a kid, and I’m sorry you’re angry about it.”

Both examples indicate that the speaker knows the listener is hurting. Neither, however, indicate the speaker believes they have done anything wrong, or that the speaker is in anyway responsible for the hurt. Acknowledging wrongdoing and accepting responsibility would look more like this:

“The joke I told was inappropriate and I shouldn’t have told it. I can see that you are feeling hurt and angry, and I am so sorry.”

2.  Have Compassion for Pain Caused

Ultimately, an apology is not about right and wrong…it’s about healing pain. When someone feels betrayed or disappointed as a result of another’s behavior, knowing the hurt they feel matters can be incredibly powerful.

3. Say ‘I’m Sorry’

Yes, literally. Whether it’s “I’m sorry” or “I apologize,” nothing kills a great apology like having a few sentences of sincere expression of regret or pontificating about how wrong your actions were and just ending there. 

I once dated a guy who, over the months, said, “I was wrong,” “I can see why you’re hurt and hope you can pardon me,” but could never once swallow his pride enough to say, “I’m sorry.” I never walked away from these conflicts feeling like we had made up. As a phrase, it’s simple, it’s humble, and it shows the person or people you’re apologizing to that they matter.

Justin Bieber’s statement, in full:

“As a kid, I didn’t understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt. I thought it was ok to repeat hurtful words and jokes, but didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t funny and that in fact my actions were continuing the ignorance.

Thanks to friends and family I learned from my mistakes and grew up and apologized for those wrongs. Now that these mistakes from the past have become public I need to apologize again to all those I have offended. I’m very sorry. I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologize for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake. I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world and to not make that mistake again.

Ignorance has no place in our society and I hope the sharing of my faults can prevent others from making the same mistake in the future. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say but telling the truth is always what’s right. Five years ago I made a reckless and immature mistake and I’m grateful to those close to me who helped me learn those lessons as a young man. Once again….I’m sorry.”