An Excerpt from Beyond Sorry

Ray Hennessey

May 10, 2024


We have entered "The Era of the Apology." Ray Hennessey explains why apologies are so important, and how to get them right.

BeyondSorry.jpgEverybody messes up. In relationships. In business. In life. It's a fact of human nature that we're flawed. People aren't inherently bad, but humans tend to do a lot of bad things. Everyone has engaged in behavior they're not proud of. We all have secrets, and we're all prone to traits and impulses we wish we didn't have. History, literature, and music for centuries have given us examples of falls from grace, tragedies, and fatal flaws.

And then came the digital age. With the proliferation of social media, so much of our personal and professional behavior can suddenly find itself in the public view. What we do personally affects us professionally and vice versa. The human tendency to fail those who trust us has changed from a personal crisis to one with a large audience often clamoring for some measure of retribution. As humans, professionally and personally, we find ourselves at risk of lasting reputational damage if we don't find a way to recover and move forward.

Beyond Sorry: How to Own Up, Make Good, and Move Forward After a Crisis lays out the framework for people to offer sincere and lasting apologies that can help turn around their careers or personal lives in the digital age.

Redemption of one's reputation isn't easy. It takes more than a simple apology. That's what going beyond sorry means: taking the extra steps to ensure you can fight all the hurdles in your way. Beyond Sorry explores the steps one needs to take to move forward, including finding the right words, delivering the message with credibility, taking ownership of our actions and behaviors, and living a life that shows those around us that we're worthy of another chance.

The following excerpt comes from Chapter One of the book.


The Era of the Apology 

Life means always having to say you’re sorry. 

That may be a bit of an overstatement, and an unfair bastardization of Erich Segal’s famous line about love, but it certainly seems that we have a bumper crop of apologies nowadays. From politicians to media figures to entertainers to just plain regular folks, we find ourselves regularly seeing people make apologies for things they’ve done or said. It’s tempting to ask whether we live in an era of people just behaving badly more, making it more necessary to try to fix relationships with a parade of apologies.  

We aren’t behaving any worse or better than we have in history. We are human, and part of being human is screwing up. All day long. Early and often. People have behaved badly for as long as humans have walked the earth. Screwing up is so commonplace that we have, in business circles, damn near fetishized failure, as if it’s the only or best path to achieving success. You can’t learn from mistakes if you don’t make them, after all. But our failures, personal and professional, are often avoidable. Very often, when we’re accused of saying the wrong thing, we know we shouldn’t say something before the words come out of our mouth. When we do something wrong, we do it with the knowledge that our actions are wrong. Sure, we might learn from the outcomes. We may be fired or reprimanded, or face some penalty, but we learn more from the consequences of our actions than from the actions themselves. We find ourselves sorry very often for being caught rather than having truly done wrong.  

Again, that’s human nature. History is full of examples of people engaging in behavior they knew was wrong and did it anyway. What’s more, as humans, we’ve always loved the stories of people screwing up bigtime. The Bible starts with Adam and Eve, both of whom were told the rules very clearly but gave into the temptation of the fruit. Many religious texts have the same undertones. Greek mythology rivals the darkest imaginations of any horror novelist. Zeus, king of the gods, was awful. He killed his first wife to marry Hera, he routinely raped humans who resisted his advances, engaged in fairly regular incest, and spent a lot of time alternately helping and harming his fellow gods and humans. Modern monotheistic traditions define God as perfection, but the gods of old were more representative of the worst of our behaviors.  

Vengeance has been a common theme in history, too. Again, Zeus, probably without giving a thought to irony, meted out some of the worst punishments in literature. Tantalus, Zeus’s mortal son, stole ambrosia from the gods and served up his own dead son to them to eat, and was thus punished to a life in the underworld where he had a fruit tree above him and a pool of water below him – and both moved out of reach every time he was trying to sate his eternal hunger and thirst. (We get the word “tantalize” from this.) When Prometheus gave fire to humankind, he was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver pecked at by an eagle every night. 

Shakespeare’s tragedies are all about our fatal flaws. Othello’s was jealousy, which led him to kill his wife. King Lear suffered from arrogance, ignorance and excessive pride. Macbeth’s is his ambition. Hamlet had so many flaws they’re still debated in high school term papers today. Those flaws led to downfalls. Those flaws are also common in all of us. Characters in literature mimic our character in life. When we have a reputational, professional or personal problem, it’s generally because of our own flaws (hopefully not fatal). But, because our tendency to make mistakes or do wrong to people is so much a part of human nature, we should first take solace in knowing that, no matter what we’ve done, someone, somewhere has done something worse. That doesn’t excuse whatever you’ve done to get you in trouble, but it does remind you that you’re in a club that has spanned millennia.  

Also in our very human nature we have a tendency to not only make mistakes ourselves, but to revel in the errors of others. That’s why mythology and literature is full of crime and punishment, in all cultures. We see the flaws of others as a reflection of ourselves, but we also enjoy seeing people get their comeuppance. And, if we don’t exactly enjoy the suffering of others, we at least mourn it because we understand that flaws are inevitable, and often our first instinct is forgiveness. When Horatio leans over Hamlet and says, “Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” he does so in forgiveness and mourning for all of us.  

Notice that, amid all the literature around flaws, mistakes and dark and dirty deeds, there appear to be very few apologies. There are very few great orations from leaders in history where they admit fault. In fact, there are more justifications than apologies. The few apologies in history come from religious texts, but, even they are often delivered weakly, certainly not in the same league as the bad acts worthy of apology. So why now does it seem, today, that every time we turn around, someone is saying sorry for something? 

It’s that our own flaws (known as “harmatia” in Greek tragedies) are much more out in the open because our lives are more out in the open. With the prevalence of social media, we’re living our lives less in the quietude of our own home and more among the cacophony of a digital world. What was private is now public. Our friends know our breakups – and, too often, the reasons for them -- because of Facebook status updates. Our LinkedIn profiles show our job losses. News travels faster than we are often able to handle it, and bad news has always travelled faster than the good. 

We are also more likely to make a reputation-damaging miscue in front of people in this environment. Words or actions that might have prompted a shake of the head in a private conversation become the stuff of anonymous scorn on social media.  


It’s important to remember that, for all the good that social media has done in making communications among humanity easier, it is also a business. And, as author Douglas Rothkoff has put it so eloquently, rather than being consumers of this technology, we are actually the product. Social media is a giant, real-time reality show, where we’re both the players and the audience. Our lives provide the drama and we are subject to the acceptance, revulsion, appreciation, disappointment and anger of any actor on a stage. […] With apologies to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., we are collaborators in this social creation. For the opportunity to post our kids’ soccer pictures or to opine in a tweet about an election, we sign away rights to our privacy that may otherwise exist. We join this actors’ union as willing participants, for better or for worse, ‘til death, deactivation or deplatforming do us part. Worse, we do it so casually, agreeing to small-font terms and conditions most of us never even read. 

That’s created a shift in how we view who is in the public eye. Politicians have always known that they’re giving up some kind of expectations of privacy when they become a public figure. Same with business leaders who run public companies. When you have stakeholders to hold you accountable, your actions and words naturally come under more scrutiny. In fact, under libel law, being a public figure gives the media more leeway in how they can write about you and limits your ability to win a lawsuit if you think you have been unfairly attacked by the press. That’s an open societal tradeoff. People who rise to the point in their lives and their careers where they seek attention and strive to become public figures know what they’re getting themselves into. I’ve counselled clients who are seeking broad media exposure that such attention always comes with a price. You are exposing yourself to public scrutiny, and the public can turn against you, ascribe bias and motives to your words and really come after you, so you have to be ready. It’s just part of the stage you’re choosing to be on. 

But regular folks dumb-thumbing on social often don’t realize that they, too, are now public figures. On open platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, unless you are actively keeping your posts private, many people can see them. You don’t know your audience. You may think you’re only speaking to your friends, but you’re not. In fact, you should know better. Some of us seek validation in counting how many followers or friends we have on these platforms, as if those are data points for our self-worth, not realizing that nothing could be further from the truth. […] When you say or write words, or commit an act, the audience gets to make judgments for you. That’s actually part of the reward for being the audience. Remember the Hamlet example? For centuries, we’ve been trying to determine what his problem really was. And our own personal interpretation makes the play personal to us. That may be lost to us in our first high school reading, but for those who come back to it later, after heartache, drama, failings and experience, we see it and own the story in a different way. That’s why we find so much beauty in art and literature and relationships. We see things in our own way, interpret art through our own personal lens and allow it to speak to us in our own language. With social media as a drama, we view words and actions through our own lens. Your context for an inappropriate statement or post, or the true meaning behind something you said during a speech, or even the legitimate excuse you broke the law or dishonored a vow, doesn’t matter because that’s not how drama works. When you bare yourself to the world, you are at the mercy of the crowd. And mercy is never first on the crowd’s mind. 

If the story ended there, it would indeed be tragedy. We would have to live with an ending in our lives and our reputations where the curtain falls on nothing but pain. Indeed, as we view how the media at large dramatizes our lives and our behaviors, we forget that there are true humans, not actors, with real feelings at stake here. […] 

But, unlike Greek tragedy, life goes on, and the curtain doesn’t go down. Life is more like a cheesy soap opera rather than a grand production. Characters who are killed off suddenly come back years later. Plot lines change frequently. Most importantly, heroes become villains and villains become heroes. Life doesn’t end, so the show must go on. Despite all the rhetoric around “cancel culture,” almost nobody’s reputation is in the dumpster forever.  

That’s where apologies come in. Apologies are the first step toward, if not forgiveness, then reacceptance into the communities our actions shattered. They are so prevalent because they tend to work. At bottom, we focus on the worst part of the cycle after our misdeeds—the yelling, the opprobrium, the digital torches and pitchforks of the anonymous, social media mob. Yet, the fire of anger, hurt and public shaming almost always dies down. An apology may not be accepted at first, but the fact that it’s offered shows people that you’re truly sorry, accept the consequences, are ready to learn and are ready to change. An apology allows you not only to speak to your detractors, but to also allow your defenders and supporters to more willingly re-admit you into their circles. An apology allows people to create a frame of reference to keep you accountable for the future. An apology lets you get back on the path of getting your life back. 

This is a country and world of second chances. I say that so much that folks around me often roll their eyes. But as much as our media-driven world loves to tear down people, it also loves to watch a comeback story. It loves to see growth. So much of our movies and popular culture still revolve around people failing, falling short and then overcoming obstacles to succeed. When we’re in the position where we need to apologize, our greatest obstacle is often ourselves. We fight back against those traits that hobbled us. Whether you’re a politician caught in a scandal, a business executive who failed at leadership, or a spouse caught cheating in an affair, our apology serves as a request for patience to learn, space to heal and a second chance for redemption. 


Adapted from Beyond Sorry: How to Own Up, Make Good, and Move Forward After a Crisis.
Published by Fulton Books.
Copyright © 2024 by Ray Hennessey.
All rights reserved.


About the Author

Ray Hennessey is an expert in crisis communications, marketing, and public relations. He is Executive Partner and Chief Executive of Vocatus, a marketing and messaging consulting firm. Previously, he was President and Chief Executive Officer of JConnelly, one the top-50 largest public relations, marketing, and crisis-response firms in the United States.

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