In light of the recent rash of very public mea culpas (a list which most recently includes, Connecticut Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson and anyone associated with British Petroleum), it seems only appropriate to share some thoughts on what has become quite a problem for those burned by the spotlight.
One thing I learned is that to apologize and to say 'I'm sorry,' are two different things: sorry is something you are; apologizing is something that you do and it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how you feel. I used to hate it when people would apologize to absolve themselves of the guilt of the behavior, but not address the pain caused. It is the most selfish expression of regret that leaves the recipient burdened and the offender skipping away scot free. I realize now that 'sorrys' and 'apologies' serve different purposes. Since being sorry is a personal matter (one that is internalized), I can't question whether or not it's effective or sincere, but apologies address and explain poor behavior and that can be scrutinized until the cows come home.
While this list includes points about celebrities and public officials, I am less inclined to show sympathy for the latter of the two. People who become famous have no control over the amount of attention they receive or when they receive it. Though they do have an obligation to be decent and respectful to their fans and those around them (like everybody else), they still have a right to a private life which isn't always honored by the tabloid press. That kind of pressure would cause anyone to act badly. Politicians and government officials, however, know exactly what they are signing up for because they swear to it. These men and women realize that because they are public servants, there are aspects of their lives which the populace will be privy to. Which makes the first lesson obvious, but important:
Don't do it in office (or on the campaign trail): it's shady to cheat on your wife, even shadier to cheat on your wife with a man, but it's worst to do it on the public dime and time. Notice that I'm specifically speaking about adulterous behavior, which outside of an elected position, does not require public apology. Avoiding this kind of behavior should be easy, but as Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Sanford, John Edwards and former NJ governor, Jim Mc Greevey have shown us, it isn't.
Be charismatic: if people like you, they'll be more than willing to forgive you. And in some cases, not only forgive, but not even require an act of contrition. Case in point, David Letterman, who diffused his would be blackmail sex scandal by addressing it with humor and humility. He was likeable, funny and honest and when the Tiger Woods mistress count started, his story quickly faded to the back burner.
Be quick to talk (but not too much): talk of Tiger, anyone wonder what would have happened had he addressed the accident(remember the late night fender bender that started it all?) immediately rather than let the situation bubble and then boil over? Tiger's vow of silence and disappearing act only convicted him in the court of public opinion and it allowed others the time to tell his story for him.
Give reasons, not excuses: A form press release and an obligatory trip to rehab have become almost de rigueur (and tired) in the world of public apology. Struggle is real, but at the same time, own your behavior. Witness Sarah Ferguson's interview with Oprah where she watched as she sold out her ex-husband and constantly referred to herself in the third person, as though she was sleepwalking through sin. Apologies that explain why you couldn't help but do the bad thing you did aren't apologies, they're justifications.
Be visible: this suggestion goes against the grain a bit because it is commonly thought that once you're caught with your pants down, you go off to the boondocks to eat your humble pie. Not so. Continue to live; your example can give others the courage to admit and then move on from a mistake, but the key is to be like a child in the presence of adults: seen and not heard. After the initial apology, excessive speech negates positive action.
Be real: Paris Hilton is the perfect example of someone who tries to change her public image overnight after a major faux pas. When her sex tape came out, suddenly a woman who walked red carpets in little more than a bikini top and mini-skirt was doing interviews in knee length dresses and demure blouses. Following sentencing for a DUI, she was photographed about town with a bible in hand. Give me a break! Personal growth doesn't come out a microwave. The only thing developed in such a short period of time is manipulative insincerity.
Don't forget to fact check: Why, in an age of Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and the Freedom of Information Act, would a public person think that they could get away with even the smallest fib? We all know about Richard Blumenthal lying about serving in Vietnam, but on a smaller scale, what about Beyonce dropping an untruth in an interview when she claimed she wrote her #1 hit 'Irreplaceable' (actually penned by Ne-Yo)? If you're going to lie, make sure it doesn't take a five-minute search on the internet to prove you a fraud.