Apologies aren’t just social niceties; they’re powerful crisis management tools with the potential to mend misunderstandings and restore reputations. However, when apologies miss the mark, unpleasant situations can escalate into full-scale disasters.
The recent spate of awkward-to-awful celebrity apologies serves as a masterclass in what not to do. Let’s apply a public relations lens to some of the latest lackluster apologies.
Apologies Gone Wrong
Remember the “slap heard around the world”? When Will Smith stormed on-stage and slapped Chris Rock across the face during the 2022 Oscars, no one was prepared—least of all the Academy, who returned with a crisis management consultant for their 2023 awards show.
The latest badly behaved celebs are forgoing public relations interference altogether, opting instead to handle their apologies DIY-style. But rather than giving a “relatable” vibe, these homespun apology videos have gone, well, “cringe,” according to a recent Rolling Stone article.
So what makes these celebrity apologies so wildly unappealing, and how might a good public relations expert approach the situations differently?
The Drew Barrymore Debacle
Charming and cheerful Drew Barrymore’s inimitable presence couldn’t spare her from the crosshairs when she returned to her talk show amid a WGA strike. Following the backlash, she took to Instagram to do damage control with an apparently unscripted apology video. But then: POOF! The video vanished.
What went wrong?
Barrymore’s apology swung pendulously from emotion to emotion, from seeming smugness to teary pleading to somber seriousness. Her decision to delete the video after it fell flat only fostered the gossip that she was backtracking from accountability.
PR pro tip
Any public relations expert will tell you that consistency is key, especially when confronting a crisis. If an apology appears to waffle between authentic and obligatory, the human instinct to safeguard ourselves against deception will incline audiences to assume the worst.
The Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher Controversy
Once the beloved stars of That 70’s Show, real-life couple Kunis and Kutcher faced a storm when news broke that they’d written glowing character reference letters for co-star Danny Masterson during his jury trial for rape. Public opinion had already turned against Masterson, and his conviction only deepened the fury over Mila and Ashton’s letters in his defense.
What went wrong?
The successful celebrity couple crossed the line from casual to careless when they appeared in a homemade apology video with unkempt hair and clothing that belied their attempt at earnestness. The apology itself struck viewers as inauthentic, with the pair veering from saying “sorry” to reaffirming their support of Masterson.
Perhaps this celebrity duo genuinely believes Masterson is innocent. But their video left viewers confused, concerned, and, in some cases, retraumatized. Both Mila and Ashton subsequently stepped down from their positions in Kutcher’s anti-trafficking organization.
PR pro tip
It’s never wise to play the victim when there are real victims, yet Kunis and Kutcher appeared to do just that, prioritizing their own supposed pain above the dark crimes for which their (former?) friend had been convicted. Had they consulted a crisis management expert, they likely would have been guided toward a more respectful appearance and a victim-centered statement.
The Colleen Ballinger Brouhaha
Internet celebrity Colleen Ballinger, the real person behind comedic YouTube personality Miranda Sings, was accused by four former fans of luring them into “toxic, exploitative, and hurtful” interactions when they were only children. How did she respond to the resulting outcry? With a song that was zero parts apology and all parts appalling. Ballinger’s chipper tune even included the reprehensible line, “The only thing I’ve ever groomed is my two Persian cats.”
What went wrong?
Trivializing such grave accusations with a ukulele jingle demonstrated a glaring lack of understanding and empathy. At no point in Ballinger’s homegrown music video did she actually acknowledge the seriousness of the situation or offer an apology. The entire scene reads more like a mockery than a meaningful attempt to right a wrong.
PR pro tip
Never, never, never, never, never apologize in a song—especially not a song that sounds better suited to a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon.
Let the Ego GO!
With their legions of adoring fans, celebrities can start to feel invincible. But one poorly thought-out social engagement can shatter even the shiniest image in a matter of minutes. Audiences are often quick to turn against anyone deemed inauthentic or immoral, from Hollywood stars to business owners, executives, and even entire brands.
Anyone who feels immune to criticism should step back and self-reflect because today’s culture is quick to call for cancellation. What you might see as a minor misstep can take on a life of its own and escalate to a full-blown PR nightmare if the story gets traction with the “right” people.
Public Relations Means Relating to the Public
Rolling Stone got it right: too many celebrity apologies seem more intent on salvaging careers than expressing real regret. In times of crisis, the top priority cannot be damage control. Integrity, authenticity, and empathy must lead the way.
As we’ve all seen and experienced, doing the “right thing” isn’t always easy, but it is always the right thing. As for the celebrities we’ve discussed? Perhaps they’ll do better next time. Or, better yet, we can hope “next time” never comes around.