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The Power of the Apology Video (And Why So Many Fail)

Published on March 5, 2021, at 5:59 p.m. 
by Rachel Breeding.

It has been a little over three years since disgraced YouTuber Logan Paul uploaded his now-infamous apology video, “So Sorry.” The video, which Paul made in response to backlash he received after publishing a video including graphic, uncensored content for his millions of underage fans to see, sparked a new era for influencer and celebrity apologies: the era of the apology video.

In terms of modern crisis communications and image repair tactics, the apology video is one of the most popular media that influencers and more mainstream celebrities are choosing when making a public apology. However, the apology video model is deeply flawed, and in many cases, a poorly received apology video ends up doing more harm to a person’s reputation than an unaddressed scandal ever could.

Paul’s apology video — and so many others that have since followed — has been torn apart by the general public and the media alike. Time and time again, people are finding celebrity apology videos to be anything but sincere. As public figures continue to post apology videos that seem obviously staged, with a stripped down and “tired” personal appearance, lighting and background changes to make the video feel “raw,” and plenty of forced tears and exasperated sighs, the public and media are growing increasingly skeptical of the sincerity of anyone who posts an apology video.

However, there are some redeeming factors for apology videos when they are done effectively, and that is why the apology video is maintaining its popularity even through an abundance of critiques.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Simply put, the effectiveness of an apology video will always come down to the ability of the person making one to show genuine remorse and understanding of their mistake. Many public figures still haven’t figured out that the optics of an apology video and the actual message within it are two very different things, and that appears to be the main reason why so many apology videos continue to be poorly received.

When discussing apology videos and how they factor into modern PR, it’s important to understand both the rhetoric and themes of apologies in general, looking into what makes an apology appear genuine versus phony, as well as the current industry perspective on the apology video being used as an image repair tactic. Academics and industry professionals can provide valuable insight into the importance of the apology video and how to use one effectively for image repair or other crisis communications needs.

What makes an apology “acceptable”
First, what actually makes an apology effective must be addressed. Cory Paul Harrison, a professor of rhetoric at The University of Alabama, said it comes down to the person apologizing taking proper responsibility, and more specifically, understanding what actual responsibility looks like.

“People are very bad at apologizing, but very good at wanting an apology,” said Harrison. “But the best way for an apology to appear genuine is the acknowledgement of a mistake while accepting that forgiveness should never be expected, but rather earned through genuine growth and change.” So many public figures seem to forget that an apology video should be a starting point for personal growth rather than a one-and-done fix for any and every mistake.

Additionally, many failed apology videos seem to have one thing in common: The apologizer is focused far too much on appearing sincere rather than actually being sincere. While discussing the rhetorical appeals and how they play into the rhetoric of apologies, Harrison said, “Focusing on ethos and showing one’s true character is key. People need to stop focusing on pathos and the overwhelming expression of guilt and instead need to show they are ready to put in the work to make a genuine change through educating themselves.”

The apology video as an image repair tactic

With the foundation of a good apology now laid, its current relevance as an image repair tactic can be addressed. Dr. Kenon Brown, a professor of public relations at The University of Alabama and an industry professional who has done image repair work for public figure clients, said that in the digital age, the digital video is the key to communication. “When done correctly, and I stress correctly, apology videos are extremely important,” explained Brown. “If done right, video can make a much stronger personal impact than written forms of communication, and the media loves video.”

Photo by William Bayreuther on Unsplash

The apology video model allows public figures to speak in an almost face-to-face manner with their supporters and their critics, and that can make a very positive impact when the message is well-received. When asked about his professional opinion on the apology video, Brown described it as “the best tactic or worst tactic you could ever use.” He also echoed Harrison’s feelings on the importance of an actual sincere statement over the forced appearance of immense guilt.

Regarding how the public and the media will react to an apology video, and what that means for a person’s reputation, Brown stated, “A person’s reputation will never be the same, so the goal is always to repair it as much as possible.” He went on to say that an apology video allows someone to show that their mistake was an error of judgment rather than an innate character flaw; when that message is conveyed effectively, it can really help repair someone’s overall image.

The final verdict on apology videos
Apology videos can be a fantastic tool for image repair. When done correctly, they can help a person connect with their audience and show a level of sincerity and thoughtfulness that cannot be replicated through an open letter or other means of public apology.

However, when done incorrectly, an apology video can create lasting damage to a person’s reputation and public image by making someone appear guilty, insincere and remorseless about the actions that required an apology in the first place. As influencers and celebrities across the world continue to “mess up” in the way humans do, and PR teams and publicists race to figure out the most effective way to save someone’s reputation, they should consider the words of Harrison and Brown and remember that there is much more that goes into an effective apology video than just appearing guilty.

When real growth and self-education are shown, the apology video can be one of the most effective image repair tactics available, but when a person’s insincerity shines through their staged or forced apology, like in Paul’s video three years ago, the damaging effects on one’s reputation can be absolutely brutal — and some may never come back from that.

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