What does it take for a leader to deliver a proper apology?
Brightness Mangolothi and Malesela Maubane
Johannesburg - Since the introduction of lockdown regulations in 2020 to curb the spread of Covid-19, we have witnessed a string of apologies from politicians and public figures who were caught breaching the rules. Their apologies were meant to avoid potential reputational damage. This could include the organisations they are affiliated to.
Public Leadership lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, Barbara Kellerman, in an article titled “When should a leader apologise and when not?” posits that “Leaders are responsible not only for their own behaviour, but also for that of their followers. Since leaders speak for, as well as to, their followers, their apologies have broad implications. The act of apology is carried out not merely at the level of the individual, but also at the level of the institution.”
Furthermore “every expression matters and every word becomes part of the public record”. These expressions are motivated by four purposes.
The individual purpose is when a leader is asking for an apology for wrongdoing. The institutional purpose aims at apologising to restore the group’s internal cohesion and external reputation.
The intergroup purpose is when the leader apologises to repair relations with affected parties. The moral purpose is purely to seek forgiveness and seek redemption.
Kellerman further argues readiness to apologise can be a sign of a strong character, and when done right, can be an individual and organisational victory.
The New York-based agency, 5W Public Relations, unpacks the art of the public apology in their Blog post “PR’s Role in the Public Apology”.
While there is a collective understanding that the public apology does not necessarily mean the problem will go away, “communicators have a crucial role to play in providing counsel on whether a public apology is appropriate”.
As we zoom into South African political leaders, there are plenty examples of gaffes that resulted in apologies.
Mpumalanga Premier, Refilwe Mtsweni-Tsipane was seen without a mask at the funeral of Minister in Presidency Jackson Mthembu. According to level 3 lockdown rules, it is mandatory to wear a mask. Her two apologies were in the form of media statements, with the first one almost making excuses that it was a “momentary lapse where her mask fell off without her being aware”, contrary to usual advice on apologising during a PR crisis.
The apology has been labelled as “outlandish, lies, spin-doctoring, not leading by example”. The second statement contained words like “regret”, wherein she could perhaps be credited for “working the follow-up”, though this could also have been due to the public outrage.
The premier paid a R1 500 admission of guilt fine and scored herself a criminal record in the process while she has pledged to donate 1 000 masks to further show her remorse.
The big question now, is: Can you be a premier with a criminal record?
The Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, also found herself in hot water, when she had lunch at former deputy Minister of Higher Education Mduduzi Manana’s house during the initial hard lockdown, contrary to the regulations.
Her pictures went viral on social media and she was subsequently fined R1 000 for violating lockdown regulations. Manana deleted the pictures from his social media account and issued a statement to explain the reason for the visit.
Manana and Ndabeni-Abrahams later apologised for their wrongdoing. President Cyril Ramaphosa also placed the minister on two months’ special leave with one unpaid and ordered her to offer a public apology.
Her apology was made through a video clip broadcast on YouTube, where she used the words “apology”, “regret” and “sorry”. She said: “I regret the incident and am deeply sorry for my actions. I hope the president and you South Africans will find it in your hearts to forgive me.”
The Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu, posted a video on Instagram that undermined lockdown regulations. The video was further circulated on various social media platforms. In it, she said: “Stay at home if you can, I find it hard to stay at home. Virus just leave us alone…” Zulu apologised through a media statement issued by the department under her executive authority.
In her apology, she acknowledged the comments about the video, echoed her frustrations and reiterated her commitment to guidelines and safety precautions.
Tebogo Mamorobela, Makhado local municipality councillor and Brand South Africa board of trustees’ member, hosted her birthday party at a friend’s house in contravention of lockdown regulations prohibiting social gatherings and alcohol sales.
A video of the party went viral on social media. The Makhado municipality resolved she should make a public apology through electronic, print and all forms of social media.
Mamorobela was arrested for violating lockdown rules and suspended from Brand SA.
Madoda Papiyana, a Chris Hani district municipality councillor, was arrested for contravening lockdown regulations. He resigned hours after his arrest.
These incidents have been seen as undermining the government’s efforts to curb Covid-19 infections, with others convinced politicians are a law unto themselves as they always receive a slap on the wrist.
Social media has made public figures more accessible to the general public, enabling them to share what Mark Zuckerberg has termed “What is on your mind?”
Simply put: What are they doing, where and with whom? In cases of blunders by public figures, social media has been used for “exposé” by social media juries, with “Black Twitter” at the forefront.
The phenomenon has also demonstrated the power people have to influence change, demonstrating that public figures are not a law unto themselves.
It has become clear that deleting a post, either a picture or comment, will not make the problem disappear. Social media does not forget. The question then remains: What can be done to remedy the situation? What makes a good apology? The content, delivery and timing of the apology is likely to influence whether people accept it. To repair their image, leaders should: Acknowledge the wrongdoing. Accept responsibility. Genuinely show remorse and seek forgiveness.
The verbal message should correspond with the non-verbal gestures. A personalised apology instead of a scripted apology should be issued.
Make things right by promising not to repeat the same mistake, depending on the type of apology, while also stating future intentions.
Choose the right medium to convey the written or verbal apology that is presented on a private or public platform. It is important to consider a public apology using the traditional and online media.
Make a timely apology. The longer it takes for one to apologise, the higher the risks of the apology not being well received.
An apology initiated by the wrongdoer is more appropriate than the one prompted by other parties. Although gifts are normally frowned upon, gifts can be another way of showing remorse for the wrongdoing.
In the end, choice of words, the message, messenger and the medium play a critical role in the believability and sincerity of the apology.
When the apology goes wrong, it could be because of bad advice from the communications officer or that officials are not taking the communicator’s advice.
After all, American businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffet said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
* Mangolothi is the director of Litmus Consultancy and a former Eastern Cape regional chairperson and board member of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (Prisa). Maubane is the director of Oo Mokgatla Media and a former Prisa president.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.