One wonders what, exactly, Harvey Weinstein was thinking when he crafted his statement to the New York Times in response to what was then a handful of sexual harassment and assault allegations.
A man with formidable resources and, by profession, a grasp on the key components of a good story — a sympathetic protagonist, a compelling, coherent narrative — should theoretically not have struggled with the task at hand. Of course he should have consulted a public relations team and run his every word by an attorney. He needed to address the allegations directly. He needed to be clear. He needed to be contrite. He needed to lead with an apology or, should he opt for a classic tactic of the accused, a denial.
He began, instead, with an unforced error. Two, actually: Making the inaccurate and absurd claim that the era in which he grew up was a time of total lawlessness, and misplacing apostrophes in ’60s and ’70s.
Things did not improve from there. Weinstein’s statement is a master class in how not to react in a crisis. He hedges. He dodges. He rambles. He vaguely feints at taking responsibility — “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain” — without acknowledging any of the specific accusations that prompted his statement in the first place. He literally writes, “trust me,” as though anyone would be inclined to do so at this particular juncture. He changes the subject: To the NRA, to Trump, to a scholarship foundation for female directors. He misquotes Jay-Z.
The Times investigation, and the New Yorker stunner that followed, may have seemed like the ceiling of Weinstein’s misogynistic misconduct, and that of men like him. How much worse could it be? A lot, it turns out. When reading stories such as these, it is generally safe to assume that what looks like the ceiling is almost always the floor.
“I don’t know what kind of legal advice or public relations advice he as getting. Either he got terrible advice or he wasn’t listening to it.”
Since the Weinstein allegations first became public nearly one month ago, multitudes of men have been the subject of sexual harassment and assault accusations. And not just men in the entertainment industry, although there have been heaps of those: James Toback, Brett Ratner, Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, Chris Savino, Andy Signore, Roy Price, Rick Najera, Andy Dick, Tyler Grasham. But also men in public life: George H. W. Bush, Elie Wiesel. Men in the restaurant world, like celebrity chef John Besh. Enough men in media for women in the industry to start a samizdat spreadsheet, “Shitty Media Men,” whose numbers seem to grow by the minute: Mark Halperin, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Oreskes, Lockhart Steele, Hamilton Fish.
While some of these men have gone gently into that good disgrace, plenty have decided to respond to the allegations against them with public statements. A few of these statements are flat-out denials, but nearly all of them contain some kind of apology. And just about every last one is terrible.
Maybe these guys aren’t full of shit — as they say in our justice system, innocent until proven guilty of jerking off into a potted plant at Socialista — but you’d never know it from the desperate, inauthentic, face-saving, so-sorry-IF-you-were-offended, hey-look-over-there nonsense they’re using to put out these fires of (allegedly) their own making.
These men, like Weinstein, presumably have professionals who can advise them as they craft these statements. Why are so many of the resulting apologies so awful?
Stanford University law professor Deborah L. Rhode, who teaches about apologies and scandal in her leadership class, offered a baseline to begin. Effective apologies, as common sense would suggest and research validates, “are those that promptly acknowledge wrongdoing, that are specific about what the wrongs were, that convey sincere emotions, that ask for forgiveness, that promise not to repeat the conduct, and indicate a desire to do what is necessary to put things right.”
“Now, why don’t people do this?” she asked. “This isn’t rocket science.”
Of course, concerns about liability can limit what, if anything, an apologizer can admit to having done. Michael Meath, who has worked in crisis communication and crisis management for 25 years and is now a full-time visiting professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where he teaches crisis management and ethics, noted that “any public statements that anybody is going to make… should be coordinated closely with their attorneys.”
But for plenty of these men, criminal recourse is unlikely and, in many cases, legally impossible. Free from that fear, why are their efforts so weak and misguided?
“They think that a partial apology that expresses sympathy without acknowledging responsibility is better than nothing,” said Rhode. “And the problem with those is that they often backfire.”
I have an excellent idea. Let’s change the subject!
As flailing journalism institutions pivot to video, so too do famous men, under the glare of an unflattering accusation, pivot to an announcement they hope will remind a once-adoring public of how great they are at heart.
“[When] making the most public sort of apology, one that will be scrutinized so many different ways, and rightfully so, it’s very risky if you try to venture, to any degree, off the topic of your contrition and your responsibility,” said Anthony D’Angelo, professor of public relations and communications management at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Apparently no one relayed this message to Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, both of whom attempted a mid-apology plot twist. Believe it or not, it’s not a stellar idea to try to change the subject while apologizing for your alleged sexual predation to how you’re going to take down the NRA and also that you love your mom a lot (Weinstein), or to an announcement confirming your long-rumored and long-denied sexual orientation (Spacey).
— Kevin Spacey (@KevinSpacey) October 30, 2017
Spacey’s decision to say he “chooses to live as a gay man,” D’Angelo noted, doesn’t have anything to do with the allegation that he sexually propositioned a 14-year-old boy. “It’s off point and sounds excuse-like,” he said. “If what he was trying to say was, ‘I’m sorting out my own issues here,’ your apology shouldn’t be about your issues. It should be about basically the issues you created for this victim.”
Spacey’s statement “seemed like such a blatant attempt to change the subject by someone who had not been supportive of gay rights issues in the past,” said Rhode. The glaring insincerity “just made it toxic.”
By Meath’s estimation, “the first half of [Spacey’s] statement was probably not bad.” But the second half was abysmal. “When people try to do too much with an apology,” he said, it backfires. “What it should do is focus on the matter at hand and not try to look to do anything else, and that’s when the wheels come off.”
How not to apologize: A guide
Spacey’s statement deployed a classic tactic of trash apologists: The dreaded “if.”
“In a matter of apology, private or public, don’t you hate it when people go, ‘I’m sorry if that offended you’?” D’Angelo asked. “Because what that does is, it puts in a question of whether it was truly offensive.”
“If you feel as though I’ve offended you, then you’re offended. That’s your feeling and I can’t take that from you… and if I try to, I have defeated the purpose of trying to show any concern for you, any remorse or true apology,” Meath said.
“That’s a pattern of people in power: They’re careless.”
In Spacey’s case, this framing is especially atrocious. It invites a battery of questions that get more and more damning, D’Angelo said: “Are you saying it may or may not have happened? And taking that a step further, does this mean, Mr. Spacey, that you really have a history of drinking such that you don’t remember these kinds of things? Is that where you are?”
“There should be no ‘but’ in your statement,” D’Angelo said. “It should be, I’m sorry and here’s what I’m going to do about the wrong I’ve perpetrated.”
Another all-too-common apology screw-up: Too much explanation. Take ex-president George H. W. Bush, who was accused by four women of groping them during photo ops. They describe Bush telling a joke — different setups, but with the same punchline: “David Cop-a-feel” — before grabbing and squeezing their butts. Within days, Bush released the following statement:
Rhode was unimpressed with this “lame” excuse. “It’s appalling,” she said. I think it would have been better to just acknowledge that he did not mean to create offense and not get into the ludicrous details of it. Say he sincerely apologizes and will make any effort to avoid this in the future.”
The detailed description of where Bush’s arm falls while he’s seated in the wheelchair was “a mistake,” in Rhode’s opinion. “It just made him seem less credible.”
“There’s a pretty good chance that a lawyer wrote that first sentence. I don’t use that kind of language and I don’t recommend it, because it doesn’t allow for that sensitivity.”
All the qualifiers about Bush, especially the focus on his age, make it “seem as though the ex-president and his advisers are seen, in a way, to be implying or intimating, ‘look, he’s 93,'” said D’Angelo. “It seems to me to be minimizing what went on there.”
It’s also generally inadvisable to insinuate anything negative about the accuser in question. But after a scientist published a Medium piece entitled “When I was nineteen years old, Elie Wiesel grabbed my ass,” and Newsweek published excerpts from her story, a statement released by the Elie Wiesel Foundation (Wiesel died last year) did just that. The foundation took a posture of aggressive denial:
“We utterly reject this spurious accusation. Elie Wiesel had a decades-long role as a respected teacher and mentor to countless students. At no time during his long career has anything like this ever been suggested. We are disappointed that Newsweek would republish such a specious and unsubstantiated charge.”
According to Meath, regardless of the veracity of the allegations in question, it’s rarely a good idea to front-load a statement with language that demeans the accuser. (Dismissing her claim as “spurious” qualifies.) “There’s a pretty good chance that a lawyer wrote that first sentence,” he said. “I don’t use that kind of language and I don’t recommend it, because it doesn’t allow for that sensitivity.”
D’Angelo agreed: A good apology leaves out “anything that’s defensive, anything that’s combative, anything that seems to demonstrate anything other than complete sensitivity.”
That’s the kind of tactic that, were one to be “suspicious,” D’Angelo said, is used “to discourage those kinds of accusations.” It lets other would-be accusers know exactly what they’re in for.
No one man should have all that power
So much of what makes a decent apology is intuitive. It’s something with which everyone has firsthand experience; we know what works, because we’ve apologized and been apologized to in return. It shouldn’t be terribly hard to execute. Unless, that is, you aren’t used to having to listen to anyone tell you what to do, even when you’re paying them to tell you what to do.
Power is what put Weinstein and other prominent men who have recently faced similar accusations in a position to allegedly abuse so many women in the first place. But that power also “undermines judgment and feeds a sense of entitlement” in many ways, said Rhode — which can lead to their ill-advised public statements.
“That kind of ego sometimes infiltrates the process, with very negative results.”
D’Angelo and Rhode agreed that Weinstein’s statement was so bad that it suggests he ignored professional advice from PR professionals and legal counsel.
“Sometimes people in positions of power are used to dictating terms, if you will, and speaking for oneself. So that kind of ego sometimes infiltrates the process, with very negative results. I think that’s the case here,” D’Angelo said.
“I do think that with these serial abusers, their history of being able to evade responsibility deludes them into thinking, when they’re finally caught, that this is just more of the same and they’re going to be able to do it again,” said Rhode, adding that Weinstein may assume “he’s going to be able to use his power and privilege to prevent the cascading consequences.”
The consequences of power and privilege are also evident in the “reckless” nature of Weinstein’s error-riddled statement, Rhode said. “I laugh, but we’ve got a president who sends out tweets like that! He made up an entire word. So that’s a pattern of people in power: They’re careless.”
Ineffective apologies don’t just disappoint the injured party; they can make things even worse, in the long run, for the person behind the sloppy statement. D’Angelo cited research that indicates “in many situations, it is not the initial impact of a crisis on a person or organization that has lasting repercussions so much as the duration of the crisis. So if something stays out there and festers for a long time, the repercussions tend to be worse than [if] it was really big and bad news but then it went away.”
“These sort of ineffective apology statements allow these things to fester,” D’Angelo said. “The public isn’t going to let you get away with that, and neither will the news media. And you’ll stay under the view of the magnifying glass where it will be uncomfortable.”
“I think the refusal to acknowledge responsibility creates the climate that makes more victims want to come forward,” said Rhode. “And I think that that kind of ritualistic half-apology can often be worse than nothing.”