Skip to main content

The 5 apology rules that Sterling broke

By Gene Grabowski
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Grabowski: Did anybody counsel Donald Sterling on how to behave in interview?
  • Grabowksi: Apologize, then say how you're going to ensure it never happens again
  • He says ask forgiveness; then make a sacrifice or gesture for the people you offended
  • Grabowski: Never blame others or the media for the crisis you have created

Editor's note: Gene Grabowski is a crisis communications expert with LEVICK Communications and has 30 years' experience advising athletes, celebrities and business people about issues management. He is a former reporter for The Associated Press and The Washington Times. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- It seemed as if billionaire Donald Sterling apparently didn't have enough money left after buying apartments, cars and dresses for V. Stiviano to pay for appropriate legal or communications advice before his exclusive interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper.

We don't know for sure, but that's the only conclusion one can draw from the Los Angeles Clippers owner's disastrous attempt at exoneration that aired Monday night on "AC 360."

Gene Grabowski
Gene Grabowski

Sterling broke just about every rule of crisis communications during his taped and edited interview with Cooper, starting with issuing an obviously half-hearted apology for his racially offensive remarks surreptitiously recorded by Stiviano during a private discussion.

Channeling Richard Nixon, Sterling three times declared unconvincingly "I am not a racist," when fumbling for an explanation for why he ranted in an audio recording about his disapproval of Stiviano being seen with black men at Clippers home basketball games.

"Twenty-five percent of my whole game are black people and I love them. I can't explain some of the stupid, foolish uneducated words that I uttered."

Opinion: Sterling apology was an epic fail

The interview went downhill from there, with Sterling rambling from subject to subject, with no apparent goal except to somehow look sympathetic to viewers. Obviously he failed.

Here are some of the most important rules of crisis communications he broke during his time on camera:

Spike Lee weighs in on Sterling scandal
Sterling to AC: You're more of a racist
Sterling: I'm so sorry, I'm so apologetic

1. Apologize sincerely, then move on to say what you are doing to ensure the transgression never happens again. Announce that you are entering rehabilitation, meeting with the group you have offended to make amends or taking sensitivity training. But you must demonstrate that you are taking concrete steps to correct your future behavior. Sterling apologized to his 29 fellow NBA franchise owners and to Commissioner Adam Silver, yet he neglected to say what he would do to improve.

2. Make a sacrifice. Whether you are wealthy or not, you must give something up as a gesture of your commitment to seek forgiveness from the people you have offended. If you offend the African-American community, a generous contribution of money and your personal time to an inner-city charity may be in order. If you offend a religious group, a donation to a church or charitable group is appropriate.

And the bigger the offense, the larger the gift should be. In Sterling's case, we're probably talking millions of dollars and hundreds of hours.

3. Ask forgiveness of those whom you have offended. Sterling assumed that NBA players, owners, fans and everyone in America would understand his plight and give him a pass because he is a well-intentioned 80-year-old billionaire with a big mouth. He skipped a major step when he forgot to even ask.

4. Never blame others for the crisis you have created. First, Sterling claimed Stiviano baited him into making his racially offensive comments. Then he said she wasn't really a bad person and moved on to gratuitously criticize NBA Hall of Famer, philanthropist and businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

"What does he do for the black people? He doesn't do anything. He acts so holy. He made love to every girl in every city in America and he had AIDS," Sterling said. "Is he an example to children? Because he has money, he is able to treat himself. ... He should fade into the background." With these statements, Sterling created another crisis for himself and for the NBA.

5. Never blame the news media. Sterling claimed that NBA players and owners still like him and that he has received "thousands of phone calls" of support from friends and colleagues. Who then is attacking the Clippers owner for his remarks?

"It's the media that's out to get me," Sterling said. Cooper and every other journalist watching the interview or seeing the news reports afterward is now his foe, whether or not they were before he made that comment.

Appearing on CNN immediately after the jaw-dropping interview, African-American film maker Spike Lee perhaps captured it best for all communications experts when he said of Sterling: "Why do they let him speak? Who's around him?" Who indeed.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT