Ryan Lochte and the Power of the Public Apology

Ryan Lochte's public apology for his behavior during Rio, or rather his lackthereof, should be a lesson for public brands.

If you’ve been living almost anywhere on Earth that’s not located underneath an Olympic-sized rock during the past two weeks, you’re probably familiar with the current scandal embroiling decorated U.S. Olympian Ryan Lochte. If you’re not yet familiar—our deep condolences about the rock, but also congratulations for finding your way onto the Internet!—Lochte is facing a serious branding crisis (not to mention criminal charges) over allegations he concocted a story about being robbed at gunpoint by Brazilian police officers in Rio.


Much like Lochte’s signature phrase “jeah”—which we all initially just assumed meant “yeah,“ but turned out to mean, as Lochte later explained, “almost, like, everything”—it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that “robbed at gunpoint,” has turned out to be Lochte-speak for “detained at gunpoint after vandalizing a Rio gas station.”


But while Lochte’s words are a major part of what got him into trouble to begin with, could they possibly have been the thing to save him?


What we know for sure is that at the moment, the half-hearted apology statement issued by Lochte last week hasn’t really done much to improve the scandal, affectionately dubbed “Loch Mess” by social media. As of last Tuesday, the count for sponsors who had dumped Lochte stood tall at four. If you’ve been paying attention, that includes: Speedo U.S.A., Ralph Lauren, Syneron-Candela, and mattress company Airweave. While I was not personally aware of Airweave’s existence before this blog post, let alone of Ryan Lochte’s partnership with them, I think I can speak on behalf of the United States of America when I say I will be sorry to see his sponsorship with Speedo end.


In a public statement, Speedo said: “While we have enjoyed a winning relationship with Ryan for over a decade and he has been an important member of the Speedo team, we cannot condone behavior that is counter to the values this brand has long stood for.” Syneron-Candela spokeswoman Kim Angelastro echoed those sentiments in an email on Monday, writing, “We hold our employees to high standards, and we expect the same of our business partners,”


In short, Lochte’s sponsors were not won over by his public apology for “not being more careful and candid in how I described the events,” or by his interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer in which he expressed remorse for having “overexaggerated” the details of the night.


So we have to wonder… could this branding fiasco have gone down differently? Does Lochte’s brand still have a chance to redeem itself? Right now, things are not looking great for the 12-time Olympic medalist, but I never underestimate the power of a good apology (the operative word being: good).


Here are 5 tips  from the pros on how (and how not) to make an apology when you’re a brand or public figure in the spotlight:

  1. Don’t Waste Time
    The swifter you act, the more sincere your apology will seem. ConAgra Foods CCO Jon Harris counseled PR Week, “An apology immediately shows that you’ve acknowledged that something wrong has occurred…Some people think that apologizing is equivalent to accepting liability, but it is possible to be regretful for an incident even if something is not your fault.”
  2. Sound Authentic As Inc writer Graham Winfrey put it, your public apology should not sound like it came from Mad-Libs, pointing a finger at Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s insincere apology last year. “While Pao used blunt language like ‘screwed up,’ she didn’t address the firing specifically and also referenced mistakes made by the company’s previous leaders. As one Reddit commenter pointed out, the apology felt like it was “written by HR and vetted for plausible deniability by Legal.”
  3. Hit the Right Tone
    MailChimp content strategist Kate Kiefer Lee offers: “In sensitive situations, the right tone of voice can go a long way. Even if your company has a playful voice, apology letters aren’t usually the place to joke around. My company’s CEO shared his advice in a blog post about apologizing for server outages: ‘When your mistake makes you (and only you) look stupid, you can be funny. When your mistake makes you look stupid, AND it makes your customers look stupid in front of their customers, do NOT be funny. Wear a tie, comb your hair, tuck your shirt in, and talk like a grownup.’”
  4. Offer to a Plan to Fix It
    “Get specific,” adds Lee. “You screwed up—surely you’re going to do something about it. Whether you’ll offer a refund, update your privacy policy, hire more people to help improve your interface, or something else, tell your customers how you plan to make things right.”
  5. If all Else Fails, Go on Dancing With the Stars

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