There are many lessons to be gleaned from watching the powerhouse performer and American singer Lizzo. How to be a true champion of body positivity and self love, how to write a killer tune, how to twerk while playing the flute (on stage and in heels).
And, earlier this month, she inadvertently gave a PR masterclass in what can be one of the hardest acts of all: saying sorry.
For those of you who missed this episode, let me set the scene. After much anticipation, the latest track from the singer’s upcoming album Special was met with dismay due to a lyric in the opening verse, which featured a derogatory word for spastic diplegia (a form of cerebral palsy).
Disability advocates described the term as “an ableist slur” and called for it to be removed from the song. Three days later, Lizzo released a public apology which read:
“It has been brought to my attention that there is a harmful word in my new song Grrrls. Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language. As a fat black woman in America, I have had many hurtful words used against me so I understand the power words can have (whether intentionally, or in my case, unintentionally.) I’m proud to say there’s a new version of Grrrls with a lyric change. This is the result of me listening and taking action. As an influential artist I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.”
What makes this apology so good? In short: she owns it.
She doesn’t become defensive, and she doesn’t try to make excuses. She admits the harm caused – albeit accidentally – and rectifies it, immediately. Job done.
In fact, she even uses the moment to highlight and consolidate her public reputation as being someone who is committed to positive change in the world.
A meaningful public apology does two main things: 1) Acknowledges the harm or offence caused. It won’t try to minimise or make excuses, and it will also show you understand why it was harmful
2) Puts things right. It outlines what has been done to rectify the mistake and make sure it never happens again. After all, words mean nothing without concrete actions (how different would Lizzo’s apology have been if she hadn’t also removed the lyric?) Sounds straightforward, right? Yet many public figures still fall into the trap of offering what can be termed a “not-quite-apology” apology. Take, as another recent example, Will Smith addressing the audience at the Academy Awards as he received the gong for Best Actor for his role in King Richard, just hours after he slapped Chris Rock in the face for a joke the Oscars’ host made about his wife.
In his speech, he apologised to the Academy and the other nominees – just not, noticeably, to the man he had actually hit.
And in what was seen by many to be a defence or justification of his actions, he said: “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family… Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”
(Will Smith did issue a written apology the following day, in which he apologised directly to Chris Rock, saying he was “out of line” and “wrong”).
When it comes to making excuses and avoiding responsibility for our actions, it would be remiss of us not to mention one of the most obvious recent examples of all: our very own prime minister. Take, for one example, the apology he issued in the House of Commons earlier this year for attending a Downing Street party during lockdown. “I know the rage [the public] feel with me, and with the government I lead, when they think that in Downing Street itself the rules were not being properly followed by the people who make the rules.” He went on to say of the party: “I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way.”
See what he did there? No clear acceptance that, in fact, rules were not followed, that something was done wrong. Only an acceptance that some people might interpret his actions that way (and the implication that that’s their problem, really).
And of course months later Boris Johnson was forced to apologise again after receiving a police fine for breaking lockdown rules.
When done well, saying sorry can dispel ill will towards a company and even provide an opportunity to showcase your values by spelling out how you’re going to make it right. The apology should be short, sweet, action-focused – and firmly draw a line under the incident.
It’s not always easy to hit the right note – but that’s where we can help. Get in touch with our team at email@example.com