What General Counsels Can Learn From Rush Limbaugh's Empty Apology
The country is still talking about Rush Limbaugh and his statements about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Besides calling her a prostitute, he encouraged her and her fellow students to post online sex videos. She warranted these words solely because she believes birth control should be a mandatory part of insurance coverage.
Limbaugh's statements garnered criticism from the right and left, from women and men. It was so bad, he apologized. Except, it wasn't an apology at all. In fact, it was so not an apology, his public statement is a good example of how general counsel should not respond to criticism of corporate action.
A sincere apology can mean the world of difference to a victim or the public. For many plaintiffs, a lawsuit is an emotionally driven exercise. Families want the corporate wrongdoer to acknowledge its actions and to express remorse. A sincere apology relieves emotional tension, paving the way to settlement or no suit at all.
In the public sphere, a sincere apology can save a company's image. Consumers start to think the wrongdoer isn't as bad as previously thought. As evidenced by the Limbaugh controversy, the public expects public persons and entities to take responsibility for their actions.
The problem with Rush Limbaugh's apology is that he didn't take any responsibility. The 3-paragraph starts off by explaining that he "chose the wrong words." And then it devolves into a restatement of his beliefs about taxpayer-funded birth control. In the final paragraph, he states that it was all an "attempt to be humorous." And then he apologizes for using "insulting words."
As a number of commentators have pointed out, the entire "apology" is about Rush. It's not about Sandra Fluke, her feelings or the wrongness of the words he chose. It doesn't promise the unacceptable name-calling won't happen again.
The keys to a successful apology, according to some PR experts, are (1) taking full, unequivocal responsibility and (2) explaining how you will prevent the same from happening again. Rush did neither of these, which is why Sandra Fluke and others refuse to accept his hollow statement of remorse. Don't make the same mistakes.
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