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Crisis management and the rise of social media are two of the top three issues cited by professionals which affect communication strategies and practices. Today, public figures are often advised to apologize via social media. Even when published through another medium, members of the public or media will often republish the public figures’ apologies on a social media platform. Predicting the effectiveness of online apologies is challenging due to complex and intersecting factors, such as the severity of the transgression and the reputation of the apologizer, etc.

Perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness are desirable outcomes of effective apologies. Sincerity and forgiveness may be perceived differently via social media. This study examined how audience characteristics and attitudes relate to their perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness of apologies by public figures posted on YouTube. The researchers examined the relationship of sincerity and forgiveness in two areas related to audience perception: attitudes (reputation, fandom, attractiveness and intentions of future support); and demographics and relatedness to the public figure (age, race and sex). Severity of transgression and guilt were also examined.

An online survey of 427 adults was conducted through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Participants were randomly assigned to view two of four public figure apologies posted on YouTube.

Within each condition, the order of apologies was randomized. For each apology, participants first answered questions regarding their pre-existing attitudes (if any) of the public figure and of the offense, then participants viewed the 1–2 min YouTube apology video and finally answered questions about their perceptions of the apology, the public figure’s guilt, apology sincerity, their likelihood to forgive, future support, and demographic information.

Key Findings
●      Audience fandom, perceived positive reputation, and attractiveness of the public figure were positively related to perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness.
●      The more severe the audience perceived the offense, and the more guilty they felt the public figure was, the less likely they were to forgive.
●      The two audience attitudes with the strongest relationships to perceptions of sincerity were reputation and fandom.
●      Both males and females were more likely to forgive females.
●      Perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness were related to intentions of future support.

Implications for Practice
Sincere YouTube apologies enhance forgiveness, and foster audiences’ intentions of future support. The findings affirm a positive reputation and fandom are valuable in times of crisis. If the audience viewing the apology video already considers the public figure as having a good reputation, they are more likely to perceive the apology as sincere. If a client’s reputation is less than stellar, their apology may be deemed less sincere and of lower value in terms of reputation repair. This is an important consideration as communication professionals consider image repair strategies for their clients.

The relatedness of reputation to the perception of sincerity affirms the importance of actively pursuing positive pre-crisis reputation management strategies. The authors’ findings elevate the importance of gathering and benchmarking pre-crisis attitudinal research to better equip and inform communication professionals for crisis response.

In addition, the study suggests that a public figure’s strong reputation and fanbase provide a type of inoculation, lessening reputational damage. Findings suggest social media apologies matter. Communication professionals need to approach apology opportunities with a keen awareness that relational outcomes and intentions of future support can shift based on social media audiences’ attitudes related to the public figure.

Sandlin, J. K., & Gracyalny, M. L. (2020). Fandom, forgiveness and future support: YouTube apologies as crisis communication. Journal of Communication Management.

Location of Article
DOI 10.1108/JCOM-06-2019-0096

Jean Kelso Sandlin, Ed.D. 
Dr. Sandlin is a professor of Communication at California Lutheran University. She joined academia after more than 20 years experience in advertising, public relations and journalism. Previously, she served as creative director for an agency. Her research interests include authenticity, social media, digital storytelling, digital technologies and users’ perceptions of digital messages. 
Monica Gracyalny, Ph.D.
Dr. Gracyalny is an associate professor of Communication at California Lutheran University. She completed her Ph.D. in Communication at Arizona State University with a specialization in Social Psychology, and her B.A. and M.A. at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her research interests include interpersonal, nonverbal, and relational communication, persuasion, emotion, and quantitative research methods.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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