Communication professors present research on public apologies

The College of Humanities & Social Science held a Lunch and Learn for students in the Electronic Learning Center on Nov. 16. Dr. Kevin Stein and Dr. Matthew Barton presented on their study of apologia rhetoric at the event.

From Stein’s website Public Apology Center, the two communication professors found that public apologies follow 14 key strategies. Some of the key strategies include denial, shifting blame, provocation and defeasibility. 

Stein explained that individuals, governments and corporations will use a mixture of 14 strategies to restore their reputations after scandals. He provided a few examples of entities offering apologies, one of which being Taco Bell’s apology for the allegation against them of using only
45% meat in their food products.

“Taco Bell denied the allegation all together,” Stein said. “They basically said ‘I didn’t do it’ and that was their apology.”

Barton explained what makes a good apology based on William Benoit’s communication theory. He compared the structure of the theory to how he instructs his own children to apologize. 

“When one of my kids is not getting along with another, I tell them to apologize and say what they are sorry for,” Barton said. 

In order for an apology to be effective, it needs to address the actual wrongdoing, express remorse and commit to a change in behavior. . 

On the other hand, Stein explained what constitutes a bad apology. Most bad apologies follow a pattern of using a weak form of language such as saying “I screwed up” versus “I am deeply sorry.” 

“What they should do to apologize is follow the strategy of mortification,” Stein said. “They need to admit to it and be genuinely sorry.”

Stein acknowledged that public apologies look very different in today’s media landscape. Mistakes are easily disseminated across media platforms, one scandal is quickly replaced with the next and social media provides opportunities for people to create their own version of a public defense. These factors tend to make apologies less effective according to Stein. 

Stein and Barton plan to write a book on attack rhetoric in the near future while Stein plans to publish on how governments apologize to indigenous communities and how families use communication to create a legacy for their deceased family members. 

Article and photos by: Danielle Meuret