How to Apologize the Wrong Way

We all make mistakes. It happens. Being in the media doesn’t automatically make you a flawless person. We still flub our words, forget to turn on our microphones, and yes, occasionally say things on air that we shouldn’t.

But there are no excuses for the latter. If you are on TV for a living, you need to know what words are coming out of your mouth when a microphone is clipped to your lapel. We’ve covered this before with dunces like A.J. Clemente. If that happens, and you want to salvage some shred of your dignity, credibility, and career, how you make up for it can go a long way.

But when you screw up your apology, you make it even worse.

Monday morning, Cleveland’s Fox 8 ran a recap of the previous night’s Academy Awards, ending with Lada Gaga’s “Sound of Music” performance. Anchor Kristi Capel, attempting to compliment the singer, somehow made reference to Gaga’s “jigaboo music.” Not just once, but twice, apparently not knowing that the word is a racial slur.

Naturally, Twitter blew up.

Now, for all we know, Capel had no idea what the word was (although why she chose to use a word that has only ever had a racist definition is beyond me). Let’s say she was completely ignorant of the word’s meaning because of its anachronistic nature, and saw after the show the response she was getting on Twitter. In that case, all she has to do is make a simple apology – “I’m so sorry. There’s no excuse for me using that kind of language on air. I had no idea what the word was, but now that I understand its meaning I know I should not have used it. I sincerely apologize.” Simple, right?

That’s not what Kristi Capel does.

Screen shot 2015-02-23 at 9.30.57 AMInstead, she goes to Twitter and starts hitting Ctrl+v; copying and pasting the same response to people over and over and over like a spambot.

“I do apologize if I offended you. I didn’t know the meaning behind it or that it was even a word. Thank you for watching.”

Ouch. It’s a master class in missing the point of an apology.

Let’s pull out the telestrator and break down everything she did wrong in that apology:

“I apologize IF I offended you.” If? So if I wasn’t offended, you wouldn’t have apologized? Don’t just apologize to people who were offended, apologize to everyone. You were wrong. Admit it and apologize.

“…or that it was even a word.” If you don’t know that something is a word, then it probably won’t be in your vocabulary. You didn’t make it up on the spot, you knew it was a word. Maybe you didn’t know what it meant, and in that case, say that. But no one “makes up” a word and accidentally stumbles unto a racial epithet.

“Thank you for watching.” No, no no. Everyone knows that “thank you for watching” is TV news code for “F%&# you” to angry viewers. I’ve seen reporters use it. I’ve used it in emails to angry viewer complaints, and I regret it. It makes you feel big for five seconds, and then you immediately realize how petty it makes you sound.

And of course, copying and pasting the same non-apology nine times does not make you sound contrite. Do you think Bart Simpson was really sorry when he had to write on the chalkboard at the beginning of every episode?

So Capel showed us the wrong way to apologize. Now let’s look at the right way.

Step 1 – Talk to your boss.

Maybe you started seeing complaints fly on Twitter or in your email. Maybe someone called the station. The first step is to talk to your boss and show them you immediately understand that you screwed up. Trying to hide something will only make it worse. Ask for forgiveness and work on a plan to make it right.

Step 2 – Apologize to your audience, and mean it!

If you truly understand what you did, you should know the difference between a fake apology and a real one. Don’t be mad you were caught; be mad at yourself for screwing up. Apologize in whatever medium your boss thinks is appropriate – Twitter, Facebook, station’s web site, or on-air. And again, you need to really be sorry, so don’t just apologize to “anyone who was offended.” It shows a lot of maturity to your audience and your co-workers when you actually take the blame.

Step 3 – Don’t make excuses.

I don’t care whether you thought you were in a commercial break, you didn’t know the meaning of a word, or your sense of humor got the best of you; there are no excuses for bad language or professionalism on the air. You stepped in it. And if you post something bad on Twitter, don’t try to claim your account was “hacked.” Celebrities do that all the time when they post something controversial, and no one is buying it. No one is hacking into your Twitter account just to post that the Governor looks like Sloth from the Goonies.

Step 4 – Move on.

Don’t let the mistake define you. Work harder than ever to make sure your stories are high quality. It’ll help people forget your mistake and focus on your actual work.

Step 5 – Accept the consequences.

Sometimes you can follow all of these steps and it still won’t be enough. Like I’ve repeated several times, there are NO EXCUSES in this business. You can sincerely apologize all you want, but your boss still has a business to run, and they can demote you, suspend you and even fire you. If you make the mistake, and it was entirely your fault, there’s not much you can do.


Got a story of a time you screws up on the air, and what you did to make up for it? Please share it in the comments!


Update: Capel deleted her copied-and-pasted non-apology and issued a new one.

Now that is what we should have seen when this started.

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