I'm Sorry (Maybe): The Top 10 Mea Culpas

Saying sorry is in vogue. Everyone’s at it, and in many cases they weren’t even threatened with a libel action. Hell, some people have even started saying sorry when they haven’t done anything wrong.

But is saying sorry always a good idea? Here’s a look at the inspiration – and PR consequences – of 10 of the best mea culpas (or, in some cases, failures to say sorry) in recent years.

10.  Piers Morgan and the faked Iraq abuse photographs.

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The cherubic Morgan was fired from the Mirror on 14 May 2004 after authorising the newspaper’s publication of photographs which allegedly depicted Iraqi prisoners being abused by members of the British Army. Within days it transpired that the photographs were fakes. The Mirror apologised unreservedly, but what did Morgan say? Not very much until an interview a few months later with the Independent:

I regret it [publishing the fake images] being the cause of my departure. I regret the fact that everyone thinks I was some naive idiot who was easily duped. I certainly resent that allegation, because a lot of people believed that they were genuine. The British Army believed they were genuine when they saw them. The Government believed they were genuine.

That doesn’t sound much like an apology to us, but it hasn’t made much difference to Morgan’s career, which has gone from strength to strength. How so, when many PRs might have advised rather less self-reference amid the hint of something resembling contrition? Because Morgan behaved in character. He made no secret of his hatred of the Iraq war and no one expects finesse from him. What would have been insufferable arrogance in another deposed editor was Morgan maintaining his integrity.

Image of Piers Morgan saying “If there is a reason to say sorry, I will think about it” courtesy of cake.group

9. Sharon Stone and the earthquake in Sichuan province.

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The Basic Instinct star made a basic error in suggesting that the devastating disaster in the Sichuan province in May 2008 was “karma” for the Chinese government’s treatment of Tibet. In the wake of mass outrage Christian Dior dropped Stone from all their advertising campaigns in China. Stone apologised once, and apologised again. As she put it:

I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else. And then this earthquake and all this stuff happened, and then I thought, ‘Is that karma? When you’re not nice then the bad things happen to you?’

Both apologies needed to be made. Stone’s original comments were foolish, and once made, keeping stum was not an option.

Image of sunset over the Mekong river, in Sharon Stone’s favourite country, courtesy of Flickr user Ben

8. Glenn Hoddle and another strange case of karma.

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Glenn Hoddle was famously enigmatic as a football player but eclipsed even his most remarkable on-field performances in an interview with Matt Dickinson of the Times in January 1999.

You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap.

Thus spoke Hoddle, only to find that his words led to his immediate sacking as England manager. He was quick to apologise, admitting that he had made “a serious error of judgement” and caused “misunderstanding and pain to a number of people”. Hoddle went on to achieve varying degrees of success as a club manager, though he is currently out of the game. Could he have opted for silence, and tried to justify himself? No chance. Common sense as much as skilled PR made it essential that he say sorry as soon as possible.

Image of a pensive Mr Hoddle thanks to bellefox

7. Didier Drogba and the language of the modern footballer’s apology.

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I fully accept that the language I used did not set a good example for those watching at home, especially children. I regret that in the heat of the moment I let out my incredible frustration and disappointment in this way, and for that I apologise.

So says Chelsea star Didier Drogba after swearing, last Wednesday, into a television camera relaying live pictures following Chelsea’s exit from the European Champions League. Quite right, too. But why is it that footballers’ apologies always sound so unnatural? No one doubts Drogba’s sincerity, but his words bear the stamp of liaison between the club’s press office and lawyers, as if only they can say sorry, in just the right way. As a rule, today’s football clubs tend to prefer carefully drafted statements after the event but they could achieve a lot more by way of positive PR if they let the players under fire talk freely and apologise in their own words. They could also send them on anger management courses, but that’s another story.

With thanks to Gary8345: Didier Drogba in happier times.

6. The Evening Standard and saying sorry the visible yet invisible way.

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The London Evening Standard last week launched a high profile “we’re sorry” campaign. New editor Geordie Greig approved a series of stark billboard ads apologising for the paper having been full of negativity, complacency and predictability. The Standard also says sorry for losing touch and taking its readers for granted.

According to this story in the Independent, Dave Trott, creative director of the advertising firm CST, says that the Evening Standard ads are a lesson in how not to apologise:

The ads don’t even have the Evening Standard’s name on them. There’s just an image of Eros. At first I thought they were by Transport for London apologising for the disruption caused by the building of the new Crossrail link. It looks like the Standard’s done a bit of research which has told them Londoners find them negative, and believe that if they apologise those readers will come back. They haven’t seemed to think about the free papers, London Lite and thelondonpaper. I don’t know why the Evening Standard should be sorry. They’re assuming that we’re running around upset that the Evening Standard’s been ignoring us.

We’re not so sure. The Standard has achieved acres of newsprint thanks to its campaign, which strikes us as both refreshingly honest (when did a newspaper ever say sorry, unless because it had received a lawyers’ letter?) and astutely brand aware. If you didn’t previously associate the image of Eros with the Standard, you sure will now.

5. Sir Fred Goodwin and the lurking law of contract.

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Former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Sir Fred Goodwin has yet to offer any regret over his handling of the Royal Bank of Scotland, a once great Scottish institution now in shreds (rather like Sir Fred’s application to join the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews). But with his career in banking effectively over and a £700,000 a year pension in the bag, is there any point in Fred the Shred saying sorry? To do so might even give ammunition to those who seek a legal route to claw back Sir Fred’s wealth. The smart PR advice here is to keep stum.

With apologies to the featured hound, this photograph is by Bryan Sheffield. It is called ‘Fred Shreds’. 

4. Cow & Gate: Beware the cheeseburger in the baby food.

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Cow & Gate is ending the manufacture of a range of baby food products after it emerged that they contained ingredients linked to heart disease. In particular, so-called ‘trans fats’ were found in the Baby Balance Bear biscuits. Research by the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC) suggested that these were crammed with more saturated fat and sugar than chocolate biscuits and cheeseburgers. The CFC were, indeed, appalled: “In reality, in terms of sugar and saturated fat content, some are worse than junk food. In particular, failing to correctly label products that contain dangerous trans fats is outrageous.”

But Cow & Gate said it was acting after being made aware of just a “small amount” of trans fats. According to its spokesperson, “Of our baby foods tested by Sustain, only four had sugar levels above 15%. Three of these are biscuits, which require sugar in the recipe and contain 18% total sugars. This is less than most comparable adult varieties and other baby biscuits.”

So that’s OK then. Top marks for obfuscation, zero for apologising. Sorry really can be the hardest word.

Pictured by surlygrrrl: an irresistible burger but one that isn’t similar to baby food. Oh no. 

3. Ross, Brand and Sachsgate – how not to say sorry.

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Who can forget those comedic geniuses, Jonathan Ross and Andrew Brand, as they first harangued Andrew Sachs about his granddaughter, Georgina Baillie, on live radio and then made everything a whole lot worse by apologising to him? Cue all manner of understandable outrage but, to be fair, they got there in the end. Boys, even great contemporary humourists, will be boys.

We love them now more than ever: Brand and Ross, courtesy of Starleigh

2. M&S: “We boobed”, but brilliantly. 

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Marks & Spencer recently came under fire for hiking the price of its double-D cup bras, arguing that they cost more money to make. This was condemned as a “tit-tax” by no fewer than 15,000 women who styled themselves Busts4Justice. The result? Last Friday M&S said sorry:

We boobed. It’s true our fantastic quality larger bras cost more money to make, and we felt it was right to reflect this in the prices we charged. Well, we were wrong, so as of Saturday May 9, the storm in a D cup is over! We will reduce the price of our larger bras by up to £2.

Smart work by the marketing women.

1. Eric Cantona and the art of ambiguity.

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In 1995, the brilliant French footballer was at the height of his powers. Eric Cantona was a man capable of extraordinary athleticism on the football pitch, which he demonstrated with a two-footed karate kick against a Crystal Palace fan who had abused him. The event was shocking, and might well have finished off a lesser man. But Cantona kept his counsel, saying only one thing, this after he had been convicted of assault:

When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown in the sea.

What did he mean? Was he saying sorry? Was he justifying himself? Was he alluding to an obscure tenet of Sartrean existentialism? Was he quoting from a film script he’d been offered?

No one knew. But Cantona’s career has blossomed and his lunge at Matthew Simmons is no more than an innocent memory that never fails to bring a smile. Which goes to show that the best way of saying sorry might just be to say something so incomprehensible that, like a football match, it can go either way.

“When seagulls appear on Flickr thanks to Ben, they might be following a trawler but only Eric Cantona knows whether this is true” – contemporary French proverb.

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