Ingall says these platforms enable public figures to respond to broad audiences, while also evoking a feeling of intimacy with their fan bases. The medium also allows the apologiser to act quickly, often without any large-scale interventions from a corporate public relations team when the news cycle moves at light speed.
Karina Schumann, an associate professor in social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, US, feels social media has helped to create an environment of accountability – if only because it has created so much awareness of what public figures are saying and doing all the time. This is “in large part because everything about peoples’ lives is so public”, she explains. “Because of that, I think there’s less of a formal procedure around these apologies, and they’ve become almost like an everyday thing.”
Schumann says public figures have moved their “sorry” to social media because winning back a fan base is often the fastest and most strategic way to save their reputations. “They’re putting it out there to the public through this mechanism as a way to try to win favour back with the public and redeem themselves,” she says. “And because they want it to seem personal, social media feels like a fitting or appropriate medium for communicating.”
Social media apologies have become so common, in fact, that Schumann has set up an “apology filter” for her email. “Every single day there’s something coming in about some celebrity or politician or public figure who’s messed up and has apologised, refused to apologise or has issued, more often than not, a terrible apology,” she says.
The ‘Age of Apology’
Beyond enabling public figures to respond swiftly to a built-in network of followers, social media apologies also tap into the easy shareability traditional media outlets lack. Yet Schumann believes this ease of distribution has also created an expectation that celebrity apologies are the default – even a new part of the social contract.
Schumann explains that even 20 years ago, apologies in the public sphere were seldom. “They’ve become really normative and frequent and expected. It wasn’t as common of a thing to see corporations putting out apologies for various scandals or private matters that come out,” she says. “For the last few decades, we’ve been in what some scholars call ‘the ‘Age of Apology‘.”
As apologies have evolved into a kind of tacit agreement between public figures and the public, Schumann argues they’ve actually become less effective, even if they’re served directly to fans on social platforms.