Damage Control and the Anatomy of an Apology

Text lacks tone, and it’s inevitable: you’re going to piss someone off on the Internet. It’s not a question of if but a question of when. If you’re reading this right now and saying “Surely not me, I won’t piss someone off, I’m really careful,” obviously you are new here. This is the Internet. Someone is always angry. The question is: what are you going to do when you piss someone off?

The Inciting Incident

First thing’s first: why are they angry? It’s not enough to say “Oh I said something offensive and now they’re mad.” You need to understand why they found what you said or did offensive. Without taking the time to comprehend why someone would find something you have said offensive, you won’t be able to progress towards a resolution. At least, not towards the kind of resolution that won’t damage your public persona.

Let’s say you make a blog post about a topic that is near and dear to you. And let’s say, in that blog post, you say something negative about a minority group (whether purposely or accidentally). And someone tweets about it, calling you, say, racist. And then someone else tweets it. And then it’s on tumblr. And then there’s three response-posts to your post, and it’s only been a half hour. What do you do?

(a) Double-down on the blog post and defend what you said.

(b) Call everybody oversensitive crybabies and bemoan the power of the PC-police.

(c) Ignore this and hope it goes away.

(d) Take a deep breath, read their criticism, and ask yourself “What if they’re right?”

If you didn’t find “D” to be the obvious answer, then I honestly don’t know what to say.

So once you’ve taken stock of the situation, and see that there is a possibly a very real reason as to why these people are now angry with what you have said, the next step is to rectify the situation. Note how I did not say that you agree that what you have said is offensive. Perhaps you do, but perhaps you don’t. The fact of the matter is: someone is hurt by the thing you have said. If you put it out there, you’re responsible for it, and you should feel bad that you’ve hurt someone with your words. If you’re a decent human being, anyway.

The Anatomy of an Apology

A proper apology first and foremost accepts blame for what has happened. It claims ownership over what happened. It is the difference between “I’m sorry you were offended” and “I’m sorry I offended you.” The former pushes responsibility on the other person for being offended, the latter takes responsibility for being the offending party.

A proper apology also indicates either an understanding of the wrong that was done, or that an attempt will be made to understand the wrong that was done. Perhaps you see the subtle racism in your blog post — own that. “What I said was offensive and unacceptable.” Perhaps you do not see the subtle racism in your post — if you can’t take the time to understand why it was offensive, then at least own that you don’t rather than lie. “I don’t yet see how what I said was offensive, but clearly it was, and for that I am sorry.”

Also, a proper apology contains some form of corrective action. Whether it is the modification of your original post (note: do not delete the offensive content, but add commentary that reveals you understand your ignorance) or the sacking of people who need to be sacked, you must somehow show that you will take steps to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again in the future.

Optionally, a proper apology can thank the offended party for bringing this issue to your attention. This is more of a bonus round, and not strictly necessary, but in the case of something offensive slipping past your editorial oversight, you should thank someone for being the whistleblower.

And Then… Let It Go

Once you’ve identified the issue, apologized to the public, and done your due diligence to ensure it won’t happen again, it’s important to let it go. There is literally nothing more you can do past giving a proper apology and working to guard against future incidents. Further action risks two things: one, it can cause the news to spread yet further, not allowing the fire to die down; and two, the longer you engage the issue, the more tired and emotional you will become, and the more likely you are to cause yet another Inciting Incident, looping this whole thing back to the start.

Studies have shown that corporations who, after error, have publicly apologized in an acceptable manner and offered recompense have actually gained favor in public opinion. People can forgive a screw-up, and people respect someone who is willing to openly take responsibility for their actions.

So in the future, if you find yourself at the center of an Internet shitstorm of your own making, remember: people actually don’t like to get angry for no stupid reason. Recognize their hurt is sincere, apologize for what you’ve done, and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And then? Get back to your art.

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