Ellen’s apology was the perfect example of how not to do crisis comms

Recently, TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres apologised in response to allegations of a toxic workplace. Here, Phoebe Netto discusses the elements missing from the star's words, and why they should be present in any crisis comms.

After months off air following a toxic workplace culture scandal, Ellen finally returned to the screen with a less-than-satisfactory apology that was more about her own struggles than genuinely trying to make amends with the people she’s hurt. The situation, which has already resulted in three producers leaving, has left a lot of people upset.

While Ellen apologised, she was criticised for asking jokily “How was everybody’s summer? Good, yeah? Mine was great. Super terrific,” and adding: “Let me give you some advice out there if anybody’s thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with the ‘be kind’ lady. Don’t do it.”

Ellen DeGeneres

Netto: Ensure your apology is genuine

Even if Ellen truly is sorry, one thing is certain: She has no idea how to give a good apology. Putting my crisis comms hat on, here’s everything that was wrong with her apology, and what I would have advised her to say and do instead.

Recognise there is a problem

The first step towards a genuine apology is recognising there is a problem, and understanding that you’re responsible. Being genuinely sorry for your actions is very different from being sorry that you are in an uncomfortable situation.

In situations like these, denial or downplaying the situation is never the right move. A great example of owning up to the problem comes from American Airline Jetblue. On Valentine’s Day back in 2007, an ice storm left 139 Jetblue flights grounded, and some passengers waiting on planes for up to six hours before being told their flight had been cancelled. Approximately 130,000 Jetblue customers were affected.

In response, Jetblue CEO David Neeleman released print ads and a video apology that fully recognised the problem, and showed true empathy with his customers’ situation.

Lines like ‘we are sorry and embarrassed’ and ‘we subjected our customers to unacceptable delays, flight cancellations, lost baggage, and other major inconveniences’ showed that he understood the situation, knew the details of the situation, and cared about its effects.

The response also included full refunds along with generous vouchers. Today, Neeleman’s response is still remembered as one of the best examples of a quick, effective apology in corporate history.

Empathise with the situation

Ellen severely underestimated how many people can relate to the feeling of toxic, bullying workplace culture, and therefore took the story incredibly personally. In a matter of days, Ellen went from being the relatable, funny woman who championed kindness to every bad boss we’ve ever had.

Former US President Barack Obama decided to write a handwritten apology to art historian Ann Collins Johns after she took offence to this dig made during a speech: “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

Obama’s hand-written apology note read: “Let me apologize for my off-the-cuff remarks. I was making a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history. As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

The note acknowledged Johns’ stance by showing that he both empathised and understood her standpoint. Ellen would do well to take a leaf out of Obama’s book.

Remember this celeb-filled selfie?

Provide the right details

In a time of crisis, leaders need to show that they’ve done a careful, thorough analysis of everything that’s happened, and have a detailed plan of action. Ellen’s apology did none of these things. She vaguely referenced that she would be making ‘the relevant changes’ without outlining what those changes were, and failed to give an accurate account of the events that had taken place.

Instead, she should have gone into a lot more detail about the accusations and what steps she was taking to address those problems. Why is bullying wrong? Why does everyone have the right to be respected? Why are toxic workplace cultures so harmful?

Ask: how can I help?

If you have small children, you might be familiar with this line sung by Daniel Tiger: “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is the first step, then ‘how can I help?'”

Ellen now needs to focus on doing this – both on and off camera, and on and off the show – to repair the damage caused by her long silence that ended in a flawed apology.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations


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