September 23, 2019
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Can Justin Trudeau be safe and sorry?

This is an article that I co-wrote with Professor Jonathan Rose of Queen’s University for The Globe and Mail newspaper which appeared in its print and online editions on September 23rd 2019:

The shocking blackface revelations about Justin Trudeau remind us that no matter how well-programmed political leaders are, controversy is corrosive to even the most carefully cultivated public image.

Canadians are used to Mr. Trudeau apologizing, but on behalf of the state to peoples wronged in history. The first one, on Wednesday night – delivered on the campaign jet when he learned that the damaging photos were becoming public – is different. It’s specifically for his behaviour this time.

Even though Mr. Trudeau immediately admitted his mistake – which may have otherwise allowed the matter to fade away, if this was a non-election year – the timing of the apology makes it subject to far more skepticism. The media’s penchant for horse-race journalism will tie this apology to the effect it will have on the Liberals’ electoral fate in the Oct. 21 election, and the story will persist because of the inevitable ads from the other parties that will remind voters that these revelations are linked to broader concerns about character and judgment.

As some voters weigh their ballot on the basis of how egregious the offence was and how sincere his first apology seemed, it raises the question: What are the elements of a good apology?

Acknowledgment of the wrongdoing is the first step, and Mr. Trudeau’s apologies do acknowledge the harm his past behaviour caused. There is some concern about his sincerity: If he were truly apologetic, shouldn’t he have spoken up sooner, instead of being found out? Embarrassment is often a strong motivator for apology avoidance, though, and Mr. Trudeau follows the path of others by using this as an explanation.

But words have meaning, as well as valence. Or, to put it another way: You can apologize, or your words can indicate your contrition. Mr. Trudeau expressed anger at his past behaviour – a good indicator that he gets it. He used words that we would not expect from a political leader, let alone a prime minister. Twice, he actually said, “I am pissed off” – language that is evocative and seemed genuinely emotional.

It may not be enough. Initially characterizing his behaviour as merely “wearing makeup” diminishes his culpability and minimizes the harm. In his many apologies, Mr. Trudeau keeps using the crisis-communication stock phrase “taking responsibility,” a line he repeated in pointedly refusing to apologize for the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

The racist ugliness of the blackface visuals is a stunning contrast to all the picture-perfect public relations moments which Mr. Trudeau’s people have meticulously framed. And these images now serve as powerful visual contradictions that undermine Mr. Trudeau’s rhetoric about diversity and inclusion, just as the departure of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott and Celina Caesar-Chavannes chipped away at his self-promoted image as a feminist. A perception of hypocrisy is political poison, particularly on social media, where striking the right chord is key – and voters can smell this.

Now, after four years of his government, Mr. Trudeau’s public relations posture feels too obvious, with the key message platitudes and talking-point pivots too glaring – and, arguably, too grating. Authenticity and real-time leadership communication have become political gold, and Mr. Trudeau now risks coming across as too packaged and rehearsed.

Still, in the hypermanaged environment of a political campaign, Mr. Trudeau’s hastily delivered first apology is probably the closest the voter will get to authenticity, as measured by how we weigh the character of the speaker, the apparent contrition of his words, and the emotional resonance he creates.

His brand – that he was a new kind of politician who recognizes the power of multiculturalism, burnished by iconic photos of him embracing new Syrian refugees – remains strong enough to continue as the backdrop by which voters will view these images. They will consider the effects of that strong brand against whether his past behaviour has been redeemed, or whether our understanding of him now has been exposed as a charade.

And in political scandals, rationalizing and pragmatism inevitably come into play for voters. When Donald Trump apologized for what he called his “locker room talk” about women during the 2016 election campaign, for instance, many Republican politicians and voters admitted the behaviour was wrong – but they still stuck by him, believing his actions on other policies outweighed this revelation. So, too, will it be for some voters this election who will insist that Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals remain better than the other options.

Whether Canadians are willing to re-elect this party relies on how they perceive Mr. Trudeau’s sincerity, how his actions are framed by the other leaders and if the alternatives to his party are worse. Whatever the outcome of this election, this event will be a milestone moment in understanding how political apologies work.

Jonathan Rose teaches political studies at Queen’s University in Kingston. Bob Pickard is principal at Toronto-based Signal Leadership Communication Inc.

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