Apologies: Cancel Culture Does Not Forgive

There is a common assumption, particularly in public relations circles, that there is such a thing as a good apology. And by “good apology” they mean one that works on several levels. It is genuine. It satisfies the anger of your critics. It mends fences and brings a return of unity. Or, at the very least, it causes your critics to back off.

As humans, we are conditioned to believe that a good apology’s goal is to seek forgiveness.

This may be true in our personal lives. It may be true in our marriages. It may be true in our friendships. It may even be true in a one-on-one, offline customer service situation. But it is a myth when it comes to cancel culture and the current climate of mob aggression.

The fact is, whether you are at fault or not, once the cancel mob decides to humble you or your organization, there is no such thing as forgiveness. If the mob decides you must pay, you will pay insofar as the cancel mob can help it.

This theory that apologies do much to provide cover when under attack by cancel culture is often a fool’s errand.

So, You Should Never Apologize?

That’s not at all what I’m saying.

You should always do the right thing, regardless of how it looks or even if no one ever finds out. In sports there is a mantra I like: “Champions are made when no one is looking.”

The same holds true in life. Good people and good organizations do the right thing when no one is looking or when it really doesn’t make a difference. They do the right thing because it’s the right thing and that’s enough.

When you apologize, that’s why you apologize. Because there is a legitimate reason for it.

Quite frankly, a lot of demands for apologies we see online and in the media are not themselves genuine. The amount of faux anger driving so much of the discourse we see is incalculable. These dynamics, by design, lead to real, mass anger that only serve the purposes of those driving it. Some who demand an apology aren’t even self-aware enough to realize that they themselves won’t accept any apology. They expect contrition without a willingness on their part to forgive, and that presumes their ire is justified, which quite often it is not.

The notion that in a public relations sense a genuine apology will make a difference is misguided. If you only apologize after demands for an apology are made, no apology will be seen as genuine. It’s apology-on-demand, and that’s inherently disingenuous. Better to focus on corrective actions, transparency and communication.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that there is an art to an apology, particularly when cancel culture dynamics are at play. There isn’t. Cancel culture does not forgive, no matter how you apologize, or how often. Your communications strategies must keep this top of mind.

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Tim O’Brien founded Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications in 2001. The consultancy focuses on communications assessments and strategic planning, media relations, media coaching, writing and content development, issues and crisis management, and marketing communications. The firm is one of the “Best PR Firms in Pittsburgh,” as ranked by Expertise.com. It is a leading corporate communications firm and one of Pittsburgh’s top crisis and issues management firms. 


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