Hollywood actor Will Smith’s on-stage slapping of Chris Rock echoed around the world. It was shocking, not just for the assault but also for Smith’s foul-mouthed hollering that followed.
He compounded it with a self-pitying acceptance speech for best actor Oscar and a limited apology for the offense caused. All of this from a previously much-admired actor, on live television, and broadcast to the world.
Most comment in the aftermath was critical of Smith, both for the assault itself and his subsequent actions.
However you apportion blame, Will Smith certainly had a lot to apologize for. He should have done it promptly and fulsomely; addressing all those he had hurt, not least Chris Rock. Instead, he behaved for the rest of the night as if he himself was the victim, and at the same time entitled.
Nearly 24 hours passed before he apologized publicly to his victim, and nearly a whole week before he rightly announced his resignation from the Oscar Academy.
Even if we’ll never have our actions exposed and scrutinized by an audience of millions: how should we behave after messing up in public? How should others behave?
Compare the six years in office of David Cameron as British prime minister. His achievement was in large part down to his smoothness as a public speaker, not only in crafted speeches but also in his handling of challenges from his political opponents.
Not long before Cameron’s career-ending Brexit vote, his carefully crafted mask cracked forever after just one off-the-cuff put down of a senior, female opposition MP.
“Calm down, Dear” was what he said to her in an unscripted moment across the floor of parliament, as she challenged him vigorously (and rightly) on a point of fact. His office tried to dismiss the remark later as a joke. That he was echoing the words of Michael Winner, a famously chauvinistic film director, in a much repeated car insurance ad only made things worse.
In summary, apologies that work are: timely, considered and inclusive. Half-baked, late apologies won’t do.
Sign up here for my weekly insights on communication made human for business. On the same page, you can check out my short, online course for public speakers.
Peter Coë, April 6, 2022
Peter Coë was a business journalist and BBC television news anchor for many years, and has nearly 30 years’ experience as a speaker trainer.