The Year of the Apology: The Worst and Best of 2009

We tested 15 of the most public apologies of the year to see what makes for a good apology and a bad apology and what we can learn from our A-list of apologists.
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Who did the best? Who did the Worst? A Report Card

The list of apologies in 2009 is almost too long to recount. But who did it best - and worst - and why? We tested 15 of the most public apologies of the year to see what makes for a good apology and a bad apology and what we can learn from our A-list of apologists.

First, the perp walk:

The athletes:
1.A-Rod for trying to be a superhuman,
2.Michael Vick for being inhumane,
3.Serena Williams for dressing down a line judge, and
4.Tiger Woods for carousing with anyone in a dress.

The politicians:
5.Sen. John Ensign for cheating,
6.Gov. Mark Sanford for cheating, disappearing and losing his mind,
7.President Obama for making it about bigotry, and
8.Rep. Joe Wilson for a total lack of civility.

The celebrities:
9.Chris Brown for being an abuser,
10.Kanye West for being a narcissist, and
11.David Letterman for being a philanderer.

The CEOs:
12.The president of Domino's apologizing for employees who did disgusting things with food, and
13.The CEO of AIG apologizing for employees who did disgusting things with taxpayer money.

The wannabes:
14.The State Dinner crashers for deceiving the Secret Service, and
15.The Balloon Boy's parents for deceiving everyone.

With this incredibly rich field of bad guys and girls to choose from, we wanted to know who handled the situation best. And who took a bad situation and managed to make it worse.

To do that, my firm assembled a focus group of thirty people, including an even split of Dems and Republicans to get a fair read on the politicians. We played them videos of the statements made by each of the people listed above. Where there was no video, we tested taped news coverage where printed statements were read aloud. We used Instant Response technology to allow our participants to judge the effectiveness of each apology by rating it on a second-by-second basis using hand-held dials. And we have embedded the videos so you can see the reactions themselves.

After taking a look at the scores we asked participants why they felt certain apologies worked and why others fell flat. Here's what we learned.


Winner: The Worst Apology of the Year.

Rep. Joe Wilson. It's no lie that Congressman Joe Wilson failed to inspire confidence in his "the leadership made me do it" apology to the White House for interrupting President Obama's health care address. We can't put it any better than one of our dial session participants: "He sounded like my five year old."

Honorable Mentions: The Worst Apology of the Year.

Serena Williams and Alex Rodriguez

Winner: The Best Apology of the Year:

Domino's President Patrick Doyle. When two employees at a Domino's in North Carolina made a lewd video and posted it on YouTube, it could have soured the chain's reputation everywhere. But Doyle, rather than trying to sweep the incident under the rug, took decisive action. He localized, but didn't trivialize, the problem. He took responsibility for making things right. And, in the words of one person we talked to, "he looked like a dad apologizing for his kids." Whether you're apologizing for yourself, your kids, or your company, our best advice to next year's scandal-tinged glitterati is: act like an adult, own up to your mistakes, and above all, be sincere.

Honorable Mention: Best Apology of the Year.

Senator John Ensign


So what did we learn from all of this? And how can we help next year's inevitable class of wrong-doers and apologists prepare to be more successful when they feel the need to apologize? Here are five lessons for improving success in apologizing once you have failed doing something else.

1.Don't make excuses. Don't explain away your actions. And definitely don't hold rambling press conferences upon your return from Argentina. The worst apologies, from Serena Williams' offer to "hug it out" with the linesperson she berated to AIG Chairman Ed Liddy's explanation of why his company paid bonuses while it was collapsing, failed because they weren't apologies as much as they were explanations. If you feel the need to get in front of the cameras, it is because the public believes you did something wrong. That is not the time to try to explain why you aren't at fault. Take your lumps. The public - like the customer - is always right.

2.Say "I'm sorry." Not "I apologize." Not even "I take full responsibility for my actions." Senator Ensign's apology for his affair worked because he used those two simple words, "I'm sorry." More generic language like "I apologize" - used by Letterman and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford - simply isn't good enough. And vaguely apologizing on Jay Leno's show, as Kanye West did, won't win you any style points. For those who don't know, the definition of "apologize" is to "offer an apology or excuse." It doesn't mean you have any remorse, just that you have gone through the motions. Say the words.

3.Then stop. Mark Sanford's actions were bad enough. But his apology was worse. Instead of apologizing and moving on, he apologized and apologized and apologized. And it only got worse for him the longer he spoke. Say you're sorry. Move on. Don't turn a public apology into a therapy session.

4.Look the part. Athletes seem to be particularly guilty of not matching their words with body language. Serena Williams never looked like she wanted to apologize to the linesperson she cut down. Alex Rodriguez failed to convince anyone he was sorry for using steroids. And Michael Vick looked like he was apologizing because his lawyer told him to. The singer Chris Brown during his original video apology said all the right things in his apology to his fans for abusing girlfriend and fellow singer Rihanna, but because he was clearly reading from the teleprompter, those words failed to resonate.

5.Make it personal. David Letterman received generally low marks for his post-affair apology, but he became more sympathetic when he acknowledged "I got my work cut out for me" with his wife. And President Obama was scolded for not apologizing more directly to the Cambridge, MA police officer involved in the run-up to last summer's "beer summit." Apologizers should own up to their mistakes and apologize - by name - to those they hurt, and they should acknowledge a debt to rebuild trust. The public wants to see that are specifically apologizing for your actions, not for getting caught.

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