The Anatomy of an Apology

Like most Canadians, I’m an expert in apologies. We are mocked globally for saying “sorry” for everything — even when someone else is in the wrong.

But, when it comes to Donald Trump, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

And, in Trump’s situation, his apology this past week made his situation worse. We’ll get to that in a moment. And, you’ll want to read on because there are some very real learning moments in this situation for anyone in a leadership position.

First some context. We’re talking about the 2005 Access Hollywood interview he did — where he said some incredibly crude and sexist things while wearing a live microphone.

This would be a communications disaster for anyone — but for someone campaigning to be the President of arguably the most powerful nation on Earth? Potentially catastrophic.

If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

After these recordings were released, I can imagine what was happening behind closed doors with Trump’s campaign team and communications leaders. After campaigning for over a year — you’re just a few weeks from election day and you have just offended not just women, but potentially anyone who is a husband or a father.

As someone who works in the areas of both media coaching and crisis communications, I’ve seen my fair share of shit-storms ranging from clients being faced with criminal charges to workplace fatalities. I’m in the trenches all the time — trying to help clients emerge from a bad situation with their reputations intact.

In Trump’s situation, if I were in the room, the first step would be clear: a swift, unfiltered, authentic, straight-forward apology to everyone.

Instead — what we got was this surreal attempt at damage control — with Trump’s opening line: “I’ve never said I’m a perfect person…”

This apology fails in 3 areas that are key to any effective apology, in my opinion:

Actually Say You’re Sorry — Saying you’re sorry can go a long way in putting a mistake behind you. Watch the video. Trump never actually says the words “I’m sorry”. Instead, he said “I said it. I was wrong. And, I apologize”. It may seem like semantics, but there’s a big difference to the offended parties between what he said and saying “I’m sorry”. Don’t kid yourself. This wasn’t an oversight. The most likely scenario is that Trump told his advisors ‘I’m not saying I’m sorry’. Say the words “I’m sorry” multiple times. Make sure the public hears you saying it. It takes multiple times for it to sink in.

Be Sincere — Authenticity and sincerity can only come across in your non-verbal communications — meaning your body language and voice tonality. In other words, you either have be the best actor in the world — or you better truly mean what you’re saying. It’s impossible to fake. People are perceptive. It takes practise and professional coaching to make it work effectively. In Trump’s video, ignore the words. Mute the volume and watch the video. His eyes are intense, not remorseful. His facial expressions are aggressive. If you watch his previous campaign videos, you can see no difference in his body language. Why? Because he likely doesn’t mean it.

Make No Excuses — In the roughly 90 second video, Trump spends only about 20 seconds actually dealing with the issue at hand — the lewd and crude comments. 20 seconds. After that, he shifts into campaign mode, saying “Let’s be honest, this is nothing more than a distraction.” In other words, he’s accusing his opponents of making this an issue. He then proceeds to attack his opponent and her husband. It comes off as petty and a weak pivot to campaign-style messaging. Apologize with no excuses — repeat — and repeat.

This tweet above was the first one Trump sent out after his videotaped “apology”. Again, it shows his lack of authenticity and was followed by more just like it.

So, what can we learn from Trump?

Well, if you are unable to authentically apologize without excuses, I would recommend going with a written statement. It’s not the ideal situation — but letting someone like Trump attempt a sincere apology is like leaving a 3-year-old with sharp knives. A written statement would have protected him from his own ego and personality.

In Trump’s case, the crude video comments were awful — but I would argue his inauthentic apology made the situation even worse. It showed, in my opinion, that he hasn’t really changed that much like he claims.

Don’t take my word for it — after the apology, many partisan, life-long, powerful Republicans are calling on Trump to withdraw from the Presidential race.

When you lose your own people, you know you’ve gone off the rails.

Sorry.