The Making of a Perfect Celebrity Apology

Saying ‘I’m sorry’ has become its own art form in Hollywood—and for better or worse, it takes a team to make it happen. Some of the biggest names in the business break down how the mea culpa sausage gets made.

Jun 7 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series We’re Reemerging. What Does the World Look Like Now?, which considers in real time how we cope while living through a historic time. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here.

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Sometimes it’s for an affair, sometimes it’s for working with Woody Allen, sometimes it’s for “benefiting from a system that condones misogyny and racism”—whatever the issue, the celebrity apology industrial complex is in rare form right now. Writing out a celebrity’s “sorry” has become a cottage industry: How do you craft a statement that reads as authentic and not focus-grouped and driven by buzzwords? How do you express contrition but not culpability? Whom do you pay to pen a statement that minimizes the damage instead of magnifying the mistake? And what happens when your client skips all that, goes rogue, and fires off their own quick message of regret—or worse, doesn’t think they did anything wrong?

The old-school tactic of releasing a short statement and retreating from public life—going to rehab or therapy or anger management—and returning with a sympathetic magazine feature is out of vogue. The brief, but firm, mea culpa is an art form: A few sentences can take days to compose, say people familiar with the process. There are the heartfelt apologies for saying something bad or wrong, and the apologies that turn into denials. “The shorter the statement, the longer it takes,” said one attorney who has crafted apologies that express regret without taking on legal responsibility. “You want to say a lot in as few words as possible. There has to be a great deal of care and attention paid to the words that are used so that no one is presuming that your client did the thing simply by virtue of him or her acknowledging that there was a painful experience. It can take literally days to craft a sentence.”

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To get insight into how the apology sausage gets made, VICE spoke to a celebrity publicist, who candidly shared their firsthand experience. And in an homage to a Notes app memo in drafts, the publicist’s experience is annotated with advice from experts in the mea culpa business—crisis managers and actor and reality star publicists. Naturally, they all wanted to remain anonymous so they could talk freely.

It’s very clear when I read an apology the talent has decided to do by themselves, without consulting their team. It’s really clear when someone just fires something off versus someone who sits and takes a day or two—or longer—to really deal with it and then do it the right way. The problematic apology is the reactionary apology, the one that is just firing off the first thought you have in the moment of something coming up. And the apologies where they don’t say “I’m sorry.” You and I both have read a celebrity apology where the words, “I’m sorry, and I will continue to be sorry” don’t exist. The ones where you read it and go, “Well, you didn’t apologize for the thing.”

I’ve been mostly fortunate to represent clients who are surrounded by people who believe if you’ve done wrong, you own it.(1) You grow from it and learn from it. You do the work and you move forward. In most cases, I’ve not gotten pushback; agents and managers and lawyers instead say, “You’re in charge. Tell us what you need. How do we support you?” But there are certain people in this town who fancy themselves as the most important person in the room. There are sometimes teams where other voices have more control. There have been times where the team is not in agreement about how to handle something, and your voice isn’t given the number one priority [in favor of]—and I’m speaking specifically in this situation—deciding not to say something. Sometimes it has to do with the fact that the client is up for a role that their agent thinks might be affected by making more noise than the existing noise.(2)

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I don’t like to wait until it blows up. I don’t like to wait until it’s a mandatory apology because the whole world knows. I have debated this with some teams; if you’re going to apologize later, why not apologize now? You don’t need to wait for someone to completely unearth everything you’ve ever done and try to ruin your career before you can own a mistake that you’ve made. I’ve had instances where the conversation starts with the client asking, “Can I just reply to one person on Twitter who called me out?” My response is always, “No, if you’ve upset one person, there’s definitely more who are upset. They might not be tweeting you, but there are definitely more.”

I approach apologies from a place of making sure my client truly is ready to apologize, and believes in the apology they are putting out. There’s a certain point, like the Justin Timberlake apology, where it’s just too late for that simplistic of an apology.(3) Maybe decades too late.

The first thing is evaluating what actually happened.(4) And it’s important to me that I know how my client feels about the thing they’re apologizing for, what actually happened, where their heart is in that situation. An apology has to be authentic. I have been in situations where what the person is asked to apologize for is not something that I can stand by. I have definitely stepped away from working with clients over what they’re being accused of, if it’s a legal matter and not something I’m comfortable being involved in.

There’s a very clear line between inappropriate comedy or inappropriate use of language, and when something has a legal line.(5) When there’s any potential legality issue, I don’t want to have any conversations until the client has talked to a criminal attorney.(6) In those situations it starts with speaking to their entertainment attorneys, who will connect them with a criminal defense attorney. I feel completely uncomfortable advising the client on language for an apology, public or private, if there’s any potential legality to what they’re about to be sending to somebody or putting out. There’s a very clear line between what I can support as a publicist and what needs to be vetted by a lawyer.

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There are a lot of drafts. The ones I’ve done have probably seen at least ten drafts in a 48-hour span. Doing that many edits in 48 hours is really a lot of work. I have the client write completely authentically from their heart first, so that I know on paper how they’re feeling. Looking at that, we can work through if there are places where they’re still defensive, or seeing it wrong, or if we need to have more internal conversations about where their heart is. Taking the talent’s words that they’ve sent to you and then editing them for public consumption is always hard.(7/8) You’re challenging very specific words: Why did you pick that word versus this word? Do you understand if you say this word versus that word, it means two different things? (9) It becomes your full day.

It takes a while to get to that place where [the statement] is as straightforward, authentic, and impactful as it needs to be. We all know that when you put an apology up on Instagram and you have to scroll sideways a couple of times through the slides, you lose people as you’re scrolling. Not everyone’s going to keep reading. So it’s about getting it as short as it can be, but still saying everything you need to. If it needs to be longer, how do you arrange what you’re saying so the apology itself isn’t buried? Sometimes a draft will come in where the “I’m sorry” is in the last paragraph, as opposed to in the first paragraph. Then the question is how do we reframe the whole thing so that if we get people to read two sentences, and that’s all they read, how do they at least see that you are saying sorry for this specific thing and owning it up front?

These are really painful, hard days on the job, especially when you know that they have either grown as a person, or that this misstep wasn’t actually a representation of who they truly are. Everyone’s human, everyone makes mistakes—some people just volunteer for their lives to be watched with a microscope, and others don’t.

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Once the statement is out, I sit on Twitter and have a panic attack for 24 hours.(10) I don’t know that I’m looking to measure success and failure as opposed to looking to measure understanding: Do people feel that you understand what you did and that it was wrong?

Another way to measure [the effectiveness of] one of these statements is if you get a lot of press asks on the other end. If you get flooded with asks, I think that typically means that you left a door open that the press wants to dive into. If you’ve said a complete statement, there’s not always a ton of follow-up to that. If people are not coming to you for additional interviews or quotes, then you’ve at least created something complete enough for the press to accept it.

If you’ve written something and journalists still have follow-ups, that’s something that was left open. That’s what you’re really trying to avoid with an apology: You want it to be a very open-and-closed statement that doesn’t just create five other things that people could ask you about. We want to be at a point where after that, the question you’re getting asked is very specific and you’re prepared to answer it because you already have, in the apology.

There’s also this idea of, “If these people on Twitter stop talking about it, it’ll all be gone.” I know a lot of people and a lot of reps that will hide behind that: “It’s four people on Twitter. It’s four people. It’s really these four people making noise.” They want to dodge the idea of these four people for as long as they can. And the reality is that it’s never just four people on Twitter. And trust me, those four people will look to blow it up way bigger at the moment that hurts you the most.

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1. “I’ve had [to work with] somebody who did something and she just didn’t understand why it was bad, no matter how many times you explained it. And the apology just didn’t work because it wasn’t sincere, because there was no level of understanding. I’m really all about sincerity. I don’t think there’s a formula for being sincere.” —LA-based publicist

2. “In my experience, an agent only thinks about money and getting money for their clients. They may have a perspective, depending on whatever the crisis is, on what needs to be said so they don’t lose deals.” —New York–based publicist

3. “I don’t think he was advised on that. I think he may have gone rogue. Even as a normal human, you check with your friends before you do things and get their opinion, right? I don’t think he did that.” —New York–based publicist

4. “I’m not an attorney. Attorneys will often tell their client, ‘You tell me what happened, and let me figure out how to get you out of it.’ For my own reputation, I tell any client that I have who’s in a negative situation, ‘I need to believe your side of the story before I go out there. I can’t say I’m going to work for you if I don’t believe your narrative.’ I don’t need someone to be an angel.” —a crisis PR expert who represented a man kicked out of Hollywood

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5. “Like Armie Hammer—wouldn’t touch that!” —New York–based publicist

6. “Your lawyers are gonna want you to say a lot less, [and] your PR people want you to say a bit more just to get a narrative beginning.” —crisis PR expert

7/8. “There’s some clients that want to write it, but I need to edit it.
I like it when it comes from them, because it does sound better. I go in and make sure that everything is correct and look at it from every different angle: How can people misconstrue it? Some clients are not great with words, and then it does solely rely on me to write it and then have them approve it.” —New York–based publicist

“If they’re not a verbose writer, or if they’re not loquacious, you might have them spill out their hearts to you, and then you have your best writers put together what you think is the best approach. Some clients fancy themselves writers and communicators, and they like their words better.” —crisis PR expert

9. “It could be, ‘You forgot to mention this,’ ‘You didn’t use the proper label.’ It could be a million different things. You know, you don’t say ‘African American’ anymore. You say ‘Black.’” —LA-based publicist

10. “The talent is always very aware of what’s going on, and what’s trending. Anybody that’s conscientious is going to say, ‘Listen, let’s monitor and listen, figure out what we need to do.’” —LA-based publicist

Follow Hunter Harris on Twitter.

Tagged:

CELEBRITIES, justin timberlake, APOLOGIES, The Reemergence Issue

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