As a tumultuous year draws to a close, Stylist looks back at the biggest showbiz blunders and the managing director of a crisis PR agency explains how the stars involved construct their apologies behind the scenes. Apparently, sometimes ‘sorry’ really can be the hardest word.
There’s no doubt that celebrities have fallen out of favour with the public in what continues to be a spookily surreal year. It all started with Gal Gadot’s ill-thought-out Imagine video back in March, which we’ll just call a misguided attempt at sending “light and love to the world”.
Things seem to have taken a sharp nosedive from there though, because since self-isolating was enforced during that same fateful month, it’s been almost impossible to ignore the slew of celebrity apologies that have been clogging up our timelines and occupying column inches. It feels like every other week, some celebrity or another is saying sorry for [insert random offence] in an attempt to remain in the public’s good graces, and it’s starting to wear thin.
But it’s a key part of reputation management in showbusiness. Every famous face should know that in order to survive the savagery that can be the court of public opinion, they must have a well-crafted apology ready to whip out should they ever transgress. And this year we’ve seen celebrities of all types apologising for all sorts of things.
The most unexpected celebrity controversy to hit headlines this year was undoubtedly the Ellen DeGeneres fallout. Talk of the popular TV host allegedly fostering a toxic work environment isn’t at all reflective of her hyper-positive personality. Following the allegations, an investigation was carried out, which Ellen addressed in her first monologue of season 18 in September.
She said: “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened. I take that very seriously, and I want to say I am so sorry to the people who were affected. I know that I’m in a position of privilege and power, and I realise that with that comes responsibility, and I take responsibility for what happens at my show.”
Verbal apologies like this can prove extremely effective if executed well. But they require the right balance of humility, honesty and a level of vulnerability in order for them to be seen as sincere, which could be why they aren’t most people’s go-to choice. By no means does this mean that all written statements are disingenuous, it’s just easier to get away with a copied and pasted apology if they are.
For a celebrity publicist, deciding on the format of an apology isn’t always straightforward. “It depends on the type of personality that we’re talking about and how people are used to hearing from that person,” Tim Toulmin, managing director of crisis PR agency Alder, tells Stylist. “Also, it’s about where people go for information generally. So Twitter is obviously very much used by journalists and it’s brilliant for breaking news so you may want to get something on there quickly.”
Settling on a social media platform and deciding on a written apology, video statement or an exclusive interview are just some of the components that go into crafting the right message. “I’ve often wondered whether people realise that there’s quite a lot of careful thought that goes into apologies, and there’s a lot of competing advice that a client will be receiving from various different people behind the scenes,” explains Toulmin.
“They’ll usually have their lawyer, who’s a very key part of it, a manager or agent, a crisis PR person and they’ll possibly be listening to their partner or people who know them well. To answer the question about who writes the apology, that will almost always be the job of the PR, but it will be very much informed by what the client wants to say, as well as what the legal constraints are and any other considerations that maybe their friends or managers have mentioned. So it’s not just a question of the client drafting something.”
Understanding more about the behind-the-scenes mechanisms behind the scenes of a celeb clean-up operation can help us think more critically about apologies when we read or watch them.
Remember when Vanessa Hudgens was accused of trivialising the coronavirus pandemic during an Instagram Live? When responding to comments from her followers about the amount of time we’d need to spend in quarantine she said: “It’s a virus. I get it, I respect it. But at the same time, even if everybody gets it…like, yeah people are gonna die which is terrible, but like inevitable?”
After being branded “selfish” and “heartless” on social media, Hudgens posted a video on Instagram attempting to diffuse the backlash she was receiving during which she said, “Yesterday I did an Instagram Live and I realise today that some of my comments are being taken out of context.” She continued: “I don’t take this situation lightly by any means.” Unsurprisingly the “taken out of context” excuse only added fuel to the fire and Hudgens returned to Twitter later that day offering up a written apology.
“I’m so sorry for the way I have offended anyone and everyone who has seen the clip from my Instagram Live yesterday. I realise my words were insensitive and not at all appropriate for the situation our country and the world are in right now,” read the statement. Unfortunately for the actor, many felt that it was too little too late.
According to Toulmin, timing is everything when it comes to high profile apologies, and the more swiftly you’re able to churn out your “I’m sorry” the better in most cases. He explains: “The aim is to get closure and to get people moving on and not talking about the issue that the person is apologising for as quickly as possible. There’s nothing worse than somebody basically having an apology dragged out of them after several days of pressure.”
One celeb who moved quickly after finding herself at the centre of controversy was Rita Ora. After attending her 30th birthday celebration at a restaurant in London last month, the singer uploaded a statement to her Instagram stories addressing her lockdown rule-break.
It didn’t seem to do her any favours though, as in what seemed like an attempt to minimise her responsibility, the first paragraph pointed out that it was just a “small gathering” and “a spur-of-the-moment decision made with the misguided view that we were coming out of lockdown.” As followers noted on the social media platform, pictures of Ora posing at the restaurant flanked by enormous bouquets of flowers and dozens of gold helium balloons didn’t exactly corroborate this explanation.
She then had to apologise again as it was revealed by the Mail on Sunday that not only did Ora break lockdown rules by attending the party, she was in further breach of restrictions as she should have been self-isolating after flying into the UK from Egypt several days prior.
Another familiar face found flouting Covid-19 rules recently was Kay Burley. Like Ora, the Sky News presenter chose to celebrate her birthday and, according to reports, was joined by several colleagues. After news of the gathering was leaked to the press, Burley posted an apology on Twitter, saying: “I want to apologise to you all for an error of judgment.
On Saturday night I was enjoying my 60th birthday at a Covid-compliant restaurant. I am embarrassed to say that later in the evening I inadvertently broke the rules. I had been waiting for a taxi at 11pm to get home. Desperate for the loo I briefly popped into another restaurant to spend a penny. I can only apologise.”
Despite previous strong negative attitudes towards high-profile figures breaking lockdown rules, much of the response to Burley’s apology was positive. One commenter said: “You have nothing to apologise about Kay,” and another wrote: “What’s a girl to do? Difficult one, Kay. I’m sure you took all the precautions you could.” But even with the public support, it was subsequently announced that following an internal review into the incident, Burley will be off air for six months.
And it doesn’t stop there because the apology conveyor belt has continued its relentless loop nearly all year long. Over the summer Celebrity Juice host Leigh Francis issued a tearful apology on Instagram for his racially insensitive portrayals of Black celebrities on his early noughties sketch show Bo’ Selecta!.
Around the same time, Glee alum Lea Michele, who was accused of racism by former cast members, published an apology “for my behaviour and for any pain which I have caused,” which completely missed the mark with the public. In recent months even Rihanna has had to issue an apology after it was pointed out that a song used in her October Savage X Fenty fashion show included words from an Islamic Hadith.
Despite 2020 (thankfully) drawing to a close, it doesn’t look like the celeb blunders, fumbles and missteps have any intention of slowing down. And while it’s impossible to predict who the next series of big names clamouring to patch up their reputations will be, looking back over the last year it’s been proven that a heartfelt “I’m sorry” is sometimes all that’s needed to put a negative story to rest.