The Art of the Apology: How Donald Sterling Got It Wrong

UT professor and public relations expert David Junker weighs in on the Donald Sterling fiasco and our country’s public-apology culture.

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Both lay and expert opinions have been unanimous in declaring the Donald Sterling apology an “epic fail.” But sometimes, bad public apologies are a good thing.

Sterling, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers whose racist remarks were caught on tape by a former girlfriend and released to the media, has only increased the public enmity against him after his now infamous interview with Anderson Cooper.

According to the experts, Sterling’s apology was bad because he failed to apologize quickly, get professional guidance when he finally did, show an understanding of what he did wrong, take sole responsibility for it, come across as an ordinary and likable person, and show he was serious about changing. In fact, as a lecturer in public relations at the University of Texas at Austin, I can’t think of a better example for my students of how NOT to apologize.

Not only did Sterling fail those tests, he committed the same racist transgression in his apology as in the incident for which he was supposed to be apologizing. To top it off, he levied an attack against a well-liked figure, Magic Johnson, who is only tangentially related to the incident.

For Sterling, the performance couldn’t have been worse. But from a public relations perspective, it’s important to ask what the value of this apology was for the other key stakeholders in this affair.

For the league, owners and players, Sterling’s apology couldn’t have been better. He came across as a weird, bigoted rich guy who is so wrong and self-deluded as to be incapable of redemption. Why is this good? Because, as a villain rather than a tragic hero, Sterling will be easier to get rid of, and that’s better for everybody. Villains deserve the punishment they receive, like the $2.5 million fine and lifetime ban the NBA has imposed on him.

Though it appears he will fight it in court, the most important fight for the NBA is in the court of public opinion. Even if the NBA fails to force him to sell the team, the league will appear heroic in its efforts to deliver swift justice.

This might not have been so clear before the apology, especially since his former girlfriend gained the initial evidence against him through deceptive means. But the interview confirms the evidence and is consistent with a mounting history of racial discrimination allegations against Sterling.

In a league where about 75 percent of players are African American, even the appearance of racial intolerance is an affront to its image and an insult to the players, fans and broad public. As we honor the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and also mark the league’s progress hiring black coaches, this case shows that racism has also become bad business. And that’s an important lesson, too.

Another reason Sterling’s bad apology is good is how this sort of bigotry is held up for public view. After his gratuitous complaints on national television that blacks don’t care about their communities the way Jews do, it’s impossible to believe his claim, in the next breath, that he’s “not a racist.” That statement shows to the world that saying you’re not a racist doesn’t make it so. Ironically, good apologies—with regard to cases of racism—often fail to show this. A good media-savvy apology, by defusing the controversy, makes the issue less newsworthy. As a result, a potentially productive discussion about what racism means today never happens.

In an ideal world, Sterling would have apologized the right way, agreed to his punishments, and vowed to donate the profits from the sale of the Clippers to a community project in urban Los Angeles. Failing that, we should make the best of his bad apology and respond to it productively.

Rather than simply asking whether an apology was done well, the media and all interested publics should ask, what knowledge was gained? How can it help make our institutions grow with the times and respond better to the needs of our employees, customers and our communities? How can it help us assess standards of good character and acceptable attitudes in our multicultural and increasingly global nation?

David Junker is a lecturer on public relations in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.

Artwork by Melissa Reese


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