I Just 'Instagrammed' to Say I'm Sorry: Using Social Media to Apologize...Ryan Lochte Style

In today’s digital era, it’s not unusual for public figures to use social media platforms to issue apologetic statements for any behavior that may have negatively affected their image. Because of the immediacy factor of social channels, it’s possible for any tweet, Facebook or Instagram post to reach millions in a matter of seconds, meaning social media represent faster alternatives to ask for forgiveness when compared to traditional media.

It’s advisable that celebrities, sports players, and any other “superstars” or eminences keep away from getting into trouble. However, we all know that’s impossible, according to what we have learned from Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Giuliana Rancic after they misbehaved and had to say something on social media to minimize the damage of negative press.

In order to do this, they have to make some decisions. The first one is what to say, which is in the hands of the person who misbehaved and his or her communications consultants. The second decision is which social platform to use, and the third is which is the best format (video, image, live streaming, text). Justin Bieber decided to post this video to his Facebook account:

Why choose one platform or format over the other? Regarding platforms, each one has its uniqueness. For example, Twitter is about brevity, while Instagram is much more about creating visual impact. Selecting one format over the other could make a huge difference between a person ignoring or reading a post; before taking a peek at a live video on Periscope or not. Why? Because both the impact and the effect that one format has over the other is different. Think about photos versus plain text. Which makes you want to find out more? For example, live streaming is organic, so it might be the best option if someone is looking to make the apology look as natural as possible; as a conversation. Text may give people a chance to go into a lot of detail, but we all know people don’t love to read.

Ryan Lochte

The most recent example is Ryan Lochte’s statement published on his Instagram account, following the change of versions he gave to the media about an incident at a Rio de Janeiro gas station in which he and three other swimmers were held at gunpoint. Here is the post:

A photo posted by Ryanlochte (@ryanlochte) on

Lochte also published the message on another social media account, using IFTT, an automation tool that, in this case, posted the Instagram statement to Twitter, which is the one below, no text on the post itself, no hashtags:

Let’s analyze why Lochte chose Instagram to publish an image with plain text. That doesn’t feel like Instagram. Why? Because the nature of Instagram is telling a story through images or videos, not through images of plain text. I have seen many posts of images on Instagram with captions that are as lengthy as this apology.

It’s not a bad thing to write a long or descriptive caption on Instagram; it doesn’t look bad to publish a beautiful image with a short motivational quote, but a screenshot with text and no caption? I don’t think that’s appropriate. Also, it’s not possible to enlarge images on Instagram, meaning some couldn’t even read the message, 

In terms of engagement, visuals create more engagement than plain text. This is the case for any platform, particularly Instagram. Out of Lochte’s last 10 posts, this is the one with the least amount of likes (78,200), represented with hearts. Regarding comments, this post has more than 42k comments, but at this time the account manager has disabled the comments section, so it’s hard to compare these numbers with other posts. 

After all of this, the question remains, why did he choose Instagram? First of all, his audience on this platform consists of more than 1 million people. Secondly, he doesn’t have a Facebook account, which also eliminates the possibility to use Facebook Live. However, he does have a Twitter account with 1.2 million followers, where it’s possible to post the same image of the apology along with a 140-character message. Yes, that would also mean 100% text, but this is more appropriate since Twitter is more suited for conversation than Instagram. Also, photos on Twitter can be zoomed, meaning more people can read it.

If Instagram was still his choice, why didn’t he use a visual asset, like a photo or 60-second long video? According to 37 Visual Content Marketing Statistics You Should Know in 2016, content with relevant images gets 94% more views than content without relevant images and Syndacast predicts 74% of all Internet traffic in 2017 will be video. In my opinion, video was Ryan’s best option for this platform because we would have been able to see his demeanor, body language, and expression. What if Justin Bieber decided to write text on his apology post instead of using the video? Would that create the same effect? Probably not.

Another option was using live video on Periscope, which would have also shown on his follower’s Twitter feeds and reach more people. Live video is unedited, spontaneous, less rehearsed, and doesn’t feel forced. It’s today’s way of looking as natural as possible, while standing in front of a camera and people can even ask questions and react. Maybe he didn’t want that level of engagement? Or maybe he didn’t want to answer more questions? These are some of the considerations that public figures should evaluate prior to apologizing on social media, which is something we already see as the normal thing to do.

“I can say that using social media to rectify this type of situation is totally legitimate. I do recommend that the person doesn’t limit to apologizing; that he makes amends through particular actions, which could, little by little, restore his public image,” says Brenda Reyes-Tomassini, public relations professional in Puerto Rico with more than 22 years of experience.

Ryan Lochte’s choice of both platform and format for this apology lacked, in my opinion, social media communications strategy. I don’t think he or his team assessed this situation from the communications perspective, including evaluating all the options before selecting the most appropriate one, which would also support better the overall objective of publishing that apology.

The important thing is to make the message look as transparent as possible, capitalizing on the fact that you mean what you say, from the “bottom of your heart.” 

Click here to contact Celeste Martínez. 





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