Sandlin, Jean Kelso, & Gracyalny, Monica L. (2018). Seeking sincerity, finding forgiveness: YouTube apologies as image repair. Public Relations Review, 44(3), 393-406.

As more apology videos are available via online platforms such as YouTube (uploaded by fans, critics, news outlets and the offenders), this study analyzed the verbal apology behaviors, nonverbal emotions, and image repair strategies used by public figures to apologize on YouTube, and the relationships these behaviors had to audience perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness as expressed by YouTube comments. The first phase identified and analyzed the verbal behaviors and nonverbal emotions of the offenders and categorized behaviors within two theoretical  frameworks–mass mediated (traditionally associated with public relations) or interpersonal (which may be more salient in an interactive, social media environment). The second phase of the study analyzed the audience response to the YouTube apology videos, as well as the relationships between public figures’ verbal behaviors and nonverbal emotions, and the commenting audience’s perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness. The interpersonal apology strategies and expression of emotions were largely unrelated to audience perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness; and the image repair strategies were limited in their relatedness. However, the content of the comments, a majority of which focused on the reputation of the public figure, was associated with perceptions of sincerity. Negative comments regarding the offender’s reputation were associated with perceptions of insincerity. Audiences were non-forgiving if the apology was perceived as insincere but forgiving if they perceived the apology as sincere.

This study analyzed 335 segments of video from 32 public apologies on YouTube made by highly visible public figures spanning from 2009 to 2014. The apologies were coded to identify the nonverbal emotion expression and verbal behaviors of the apologizers. The study also collected and analyzed the first 100 relevant comments for each of the YouTube apology videos–a total of 1,971 posted responses–to determine if the commenters perceived the apologies as sincere and forgave the offender. The researchers analyzed the relationships between the apologizers’ behaviors and the commenting audiences’ perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness using two different theoretical frameworks–mass mediated and interpersonal.

Key Findings

  • A majority of comments (70%) were directed to the public or other commenters.
  • A majority of comments (62%) referred to beliefs about the public figures’ reputations.
  • Negative comments about reputation related to perceptions of apology insincerity; positive comments to perceptions of apology sincerity.
  • Perceptions of apology sincerity were related to forgiveness, and perceptions of apology insincerity related to withholding forgiveness.

Implications for Practice
This study underscores how online communication behaviors are even more complex than interpersonal or one-way mass media communication because of the additional layers of complexity from the online, interactive platforms and the potential differences between commenting and non-commenting viewers. Social media is relatively new yet widely used, therefore far less research exists from which public relations professionals can develop “working theories” typically used to design a PR strategy. PR professionals must be cautioned against assuming that working theories based on interpersonal or mass media image repair strategies are reliable when using social media platforms, such as YouTube.

Apology and image repair strategies from interpersonal and mass media theories are inadequate to fully explain the perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness as expressed via YouTube comments. While more research is necessary, YouTube commenters, although they may not be representative of the viewing audience, may be influencing non-commenting viewers with regard to perceptions of sincerity and forgiveness. Prudent public relations professionals should monitor online comments and continue to heed earlier recommendations regarding the importance of fostering a positive pre-crisis reputation.

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