Why a Nobel laureate’s ‘non-apology apology’ didn’t work

Dr. Tim Hunt’s comments about ‘girls’ in labs got him in trouble, and his attempt to apologize didn’t help his cause.

The “non-apology apology” is generally employed when someone says something offensive, which is very easy to do in today’s climate. It’s a classic crisis communications move. Sometimes, it can be quite effective.

A favorite (fictional) example is CJ Craig from The West Wing trying to diffuse the moment when President Bartlett called his opponent stupid: ​

Though that was a great, most of the time, the non apology-apology only worsens the situation, giving your detractors more grist for the mill. The most recent example of this comes from eminent scientist Tim Hunt, who, while speaking at a World Conference of Science Journalists, said girls should be segregated from men in science labs because they fall in love and cry: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls…three things happen when they are in the lab…you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”

As you can imagine, many women didn’t take too kindly to his suggestion that we are overly emotional and aren’t as professional and serious as our male counterparts.

This has created a big problem for Dr. Hunt and the Royal Society where he is a fellow. If you want to know just how much trouble it created, just search the #TimHunt hashtag on Twitter. Some examples include: ​

Naturally, Dr. Hunt issued an apology:

I’m really sorry that I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists. I intended as a light-hearted, ironic comment but had been interpreted deadly seriously by my audience. I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. It is true that…these emotional entanglements made life very difficult. I’m really, really sorry if I caused any offense or if people took it too seriously… I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually. It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing but getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.

First, let’s examine why this is a terrible non-apology-apology:

  1. He doesn’t say it was a stupid thing to say, he says it was a stupid thing to say in front of journalists.
  2. He claims it was a joke and puts the blame on those who heard it for taking offense. He is trying to blame the listener, rather than accept the fault himself.
  3. He doubled down on the notion that women are overly emotional who “burst into tears.” As one Twitter user remarked, “If people always end up in tears when you talk them, then you are not good at talking to people.” Once again, he places the blame on others.
  4. He is sorry if he caused any offense and if people took it seriously. Again, this wording implies he is not sorry for having perpetuated a common misogynistic view about women. He is only sorry they didn’t find it as funny as he did. ​

How should you apologize?

1. The best apology is the brief apology: “I am sorry for what I said.” There is no need to justify why you said it or try to pretend you didn’t mean it. You are sorry you said it. Period.

2. Accept responsibility for the wrongdoing: “I should not have said it.” Not “I shouldn’t have said it in this situation or to that person.”

3. Address those who were hurt/damaged by your words or actions: “I have the utmost respect for all of my colleagues, male and female, and for the Royal Society and I apologize for the embarrassment I have caused them.”

4. State what you will do to rectify the situation and/or ensure it doesn’t happen again: “I will do everything I can to ensure my labs provide a welcoming, professional environment for all scientists.”

Had he simply said those four sentences, he might have salvaged his mistake. But, instead, he doubled down and has now lost his job.

Remember the rules for any good crisis communications response:

  1. Acknowledge the problem and apologize for it.
  2. Take responsibility for your behavior and/or the factors that caused the problem.
  3. Recognize anyone who was specifically harmed by the problem (victims, shareholders, employees, partners).
  4. Clearly state what you are doing to the situation is resolved and to make sure it never happens again.

And, whenever possible, try not to insult an entire segment of the population. Jennifer Jones-Mitchell has been blogging about social media marketing since 2007. A version of this article originally appeared on the Social Media Marketing Blog.

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