The Right (And Wrong) Way To Apologize For Dumb Things You Said Online

·11 min read
Kevin Hart, Chrissy Teigen and Billie Eilish have all found themselves in hot water for past online misdeeds.  (Photo: Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty)
Kevin Hart, Chrissy Teigen and Billie Eilish have all found themselves in hot water for past online misdeeds. (Photo: Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty)

The Celebrity Apology™ is having a moment, with famous person after famous person apologizing for stupid things they said online in years past. Just this year we’ve had journalist Alexi McCammond apologize (and resign from a Teen Vogue editor-in-chief position) for anti-Asian and homophobic tweets. We’ve had Chrissy Teigen apologize for cyberbullying and Billie Eiliish apologize for saying an anti-Asian slur. (And let’s not forget their predecessors in online apologizing, Kevin Hart and Blake Shelton among them.)

These stories made headlines for days ― Teigen’s saga is still very much in the news, mostly because she continues to comment about being part of a cancel culture. Each of these women were Twitter’s Main Character but in an even more outsized way than usual. (As the internet axiom goes, “Each day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.”)

Why have so many of us found these social media scandals compelling? Perhaps it’s because “cancel culture” has been cast as some great threat to modern life, and these celebrities seem to be living it. (Though it’s debatable if anyone we discuss in this story has been truly “canceled.”) Perhaps it’s because we all need something to talk about ― anything ― in the midst of a pandemic.

People are disillusioned by apologies that read like a game of PR-approved Mad Libs: 'I deeply apologize for ____. I’m taking accountability for _____. This is not who I am.'

We also wonder how we’d respond if we were in their shoes, if an incriminating screenshot got out and scores of people saw it. We’re prone to worry: Is there anything vaguely incriminating in my past?

“These celebrity stories remind us that whether someone is a business owner, an executive or even a low-profile private individual, they should do a periodic assessment of their online profiles to make sure they don’t have any content online that may be problematic or might not have aged well,” said Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of crisis communications firm Red Banyan and author of the forthcoming crisis management guide “Crisis Averted.”

Given his expertise, Nierman, too, has been following these recent celebrity apology stories with interest. We decided to ask him and a few other experts (another expert on crisis public relations and an expert on etiquette) what makes a good online apology (even an IRL apology) and what makes a bad one, using recent celebrity examples.

Here are their do’s and don’ts ― though hopefully you’ll never have to use this advice.

Accomplish these three goals.

Good apologies are easier than you think. No need to write a five-page note à la Teigen. It all boils down to addressing three essential things, Nierman said.

“Simply put, issuing an effective apology comes down to recognizing your mistake, taking ownership of that mistake and genuinely sharing your remorse to the audiences that need to hear it most ― without condition or the expectation of immediate forgiveness,” he said.

Avoid sounding formulaic.

People are disillusioned by apologies that read like a game of PR-approved Mad Libs: “I deeply apologize for ____. I’m taking accountability for _____. This is not who I am, and moving forward I will do better.”

“You don’t want to come across like you’re simply going through the motions by loading the apology with trending buzzwords and phrases,” Nierman explained. “With so many public figures regularly coming forward to issue apologies, including the phrases above can seem disingenuous or like a forced obligation.”

Instead, he said, make the apology unique to you and be specific about your remorse.

Center the person or group you hurt in your apology. Avoid coming across as self-serving.

The problem some critics had with Teigen’s apologies was that they were a bit too Chrissy Teigen-focused: Given her long and, more important, very recent reign as the “clapback” queen of the internet, there was a bit too much distancing from her “past self.” And at times it seemed as though she was addressing the public and her fans more than the person she hurt. (It doesn’t help that as recently as last week, one of her targets, Courtney Stodden, said she’s yet to receive a private apology from Teigen.)

Though she mentions Stodden in passing in the first apology, the overarching content of the apology came off a tad self-serving, said Amy Levy, the president of Amy Levy Public Relations. (Indeed, in the wake of the cyberbullying scandal, Bloomingdale’s walked away from a deal with the cookbook author while Macy’s, which is owned by the same parent company as Bloomingdale’s, wiped any trace of Teigen’s cookware line from its website.)

“I think what Chrissy needed to do was put herself in Stodden’s shoes more and acknowledge how terribly that must have made them feel,” Levy said. “She should have said how awful it must have been to hear those words, how embarrassed it made Stodden and that she ― Chrissy ― would be heartbroken if anyone ever said that to her children.”

Get ahead of the story and respond quickly to limit any further damage.

In December 2018, Kevin Hart basically tweeted himself out of a job hosting the Oscars. That seems like eons ago, so we’ll recap for you: After Hart’s old homophobic tweets resurfaced, the comedian issued a series of statements and posts addressing the matter ― his friend Ellen DeGeneres even had him on her show to apologize ― but many of his actions only fanned the flames.

For starters, Hart initially refused to apologize for the jokes. In a defiant Instagram video, he said those who were complaining were angry “trolls” and said he was done addressing the past. “I’ve said where the rights and wrongs were,” the comedian said. “I’m not going to continue to tap into the past when I’ve moved on and I’m in a completely different space in my life.”

Had Hart issued a more full-throated apology right away, he could have saved himself a lot of grief, Levy said.

“One day Kevin Hart was set to be the host of the Oscars. The next minute, that opportunity was pulled out from under him,” she said. “At that moment, it was more important than ever for Hart to be prepared with the tools and resources to manage his situation quickly and effectively to limit any further damage to his reputation.”

Don’t say “you misheard or misunderstood” me.

A good “I’m sorry!” requires the apologizer to take some ownership of their mistakes. The apology should never reframe the incident as more innocent than it seemed or as a big misunderstanding.

“These kinds of apologies sound something like ‘I am sorry, you must have misheard me’ and try to make the receiver of the apology second-guess themselves or the situation,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.

We live in a 24-hour news cycle, and we’re overloaded with information, so it’s easy to second-guess ourselves even when we are fairly sure we heard right the first time. The “sorry, you misunderstood” apologizer takes advantage of this.

“We see this with Billie Eilish saying she always used a ‘silly’ voice and that it was not mocking anyone,” Smith said. “Like Hart, she probably should have allowed the immediate defensiveness to pass before responding.”

Don’t say “I’m sorry you felt that way.”

Also stay clear of what Smith calls a “boomerang apology.”

“This apology is characterized by twisting words so that the apologizer ends up blaming the apology receiver,” she said.

“These apologies sound something like ‘I am sorry you feel that way’ or ‘I’m sorry if I hurt you. That was never my intention.’

“I am not sure where this type of apology originated, but blaming the apology receiver only serves to defeat the purpose of why you are apologizing in the first place,” Smith said.

Hart’s non-apology fell into this category. In his tweets and interviews, Hart focused too much on himself and what being called out meant for him rather than how his words might have hurt others, Smith said.

“His apology tour on both radio spots and television shows made the entire episode about him and even positioned him as the victim in the situation,” she said.

Don’t say “I’m sorry but ...”

Whether you’re a celebrity with a 13-million-follower count or a random crank who acts up on a flight and gets recorded, you’ll do yourself no favors if you apologize but then go out of your way to justify the situation, Smith said.

Blake Shelton issued this sort of non-apology in 2016 when homophobic, frat-boy-humor tweets he’d put out years prior resurfaced. Essentially, the country star and judge on “The Voice” shrugged off the criticism and said, “I’m sorry you took it that way, but this is just my very special brand of humor!”

Don’t assume an apology will automatically win back good standing with the public.

Since her initial rounds of apologies, Teigen has tried to dip her feet back into the social media waters. Earlier this month, she shared a pic of herself lounging on the couch with a meandering caption about how “lost” she’s felt since her induction into the ‘Cancel Club.’

Though Teigen received a ton of goodwill from her celebrity friends and fans, others were less sympathetic. “Cry me a river,” one comment read.

“You showed no mercy to anyone. It’s like you’re only sorry bc you’ve been caught,” another upvoted comment read.

As Teigen’s continued apology saga shows, you can go out of your way to apologize, but that doesn’t mean the public will accept it.

“Chrissy had long been a high-profile firebrand before her bullying scandal came to light, but audiences gave her leeway because she was passionate about popular causes,” Nierman said. “With the scandal removing that buffer, no form of apology would have successfully persuaded certain critics to ease up.”

Put action behind your words.

Time will tell if an apologizer is truly sorry. (Or if they’re just worried about lost revenue and career opportunities.)

But while that time passes, a smart apologizer doesn’t just twiddle their fingers and wait for the TMZ headlines to blow over. They put actions behind their words.

For instance, Levy thinks McCammond, the would-be leader of Teen Vogue, will recover just fine (indeed, she was recently rehired by her former employer, Axios), but in the moment, she could have taken some actionable steps beyond issuing an apology.

“Alexi McCammond could have turned her negative into a positive by enrolling in a course in diversity and inclusion and volunteering at an Asian community organization like Asian Americans Advancing Justice,” Levy said.

Then “her education in this area could have appeared as an editor’s note in her first issue,” Levy said.

Teigen could take a similar approach, the PR expert said. (It’s certainly more action-based than opining about the “cancel club” on Instagram.)

“I would have recommended to Chrissy that she then do some kind of community outreach work in the anti-bullying arena in a quiet/non-publicized way and then be quiet for a while after assuring the world that this behavior won’t happen again,” Levy said.

Moving forward, “post with purpose” and “share with care.”

Most of us have made mistakes online. How do you ensure your days of sharing cringe-worthy commentary are a thing of the past? When posting anything on social media, try to remember at least two basic rules, Nierman said: “Post with purpose” and “share with care.”

“In our fast-paced digitally connected world, it is extremely easy to have statements or online content taken in the wrong way or out of context ― or worse, willfully misrepresented and used against you,” he said. “To prevent this from happening, always post content with a clear purpose that is clearly interpreted as it was meant.”

Remember, he said, “internet is forever,” so pause and think before hitting that send button.

And if you’re a celebrity with a massive following wanting to avoid posting something damaging? Maybe go the Lena Dunham route and in moments of high-stress give your passwords to trusted assistants who’ll approve your messages beforehand. (Of course, Dunham has issued innumerable apologies since then. Celebrities are going to celebrity!)

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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