Tim Hunt Shows Us The Epic Failure of Non-Apology-Apologies in Crisis Communications

Crisis CommunicationsToday, I want to talk about the non-apology-apology.

It’s generally employed when someone says something offensive – which I grant you is very easy to do in today’s climate.

The non-apology-apology is a classic crisis communications move and 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:

While that was a great, most of the time, the non apology-apology only doubles down on the point from which you are currently trying to distance yourself and gives your detractors more grist for the mill.

Tim HuntThe most recent example of this comes from the eminent scientist, Dr. Tim Hunt who – while speaking at a World Conference of Science Journalists – said that 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 criticise them, they cry.”

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

Now, this has certainly created problem for Dr. Hunt and – more importantly – for 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 excerpts include:

Tim Hunt Twitter

Tim Hunt Twitter

Tim Hunt Twitter

Tim Hunt Twitter

So, 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 they fall in love … and 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 Twitterer 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.

Tim Hunt Twitter

Now, everyone puts their foot in their mouth on occasion.

I have. You have. The CEO’s we represent have.

And, we all will do it again, I assure you. That’s part of being human.

How Do You Apologize?

So, what should he have done and what should you do the next time you or your company leader says the wrong thing?

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 wrong-doing: I should not have said it.

Not, I shouldn’t have said it in this situation or to that person. I shouldn’t have said it. Period.

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.

That’s it.

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

Remember the rules for good crisis communications:

  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.


  1. Actually, Hunt did not even have to go as far as you described above (though that would have been best). Given his stature as a Nobel Laureate, he could have just said. “I apologize for anyone I offended. I was trying to be funny. Clearly, it was a bad joke. Sorry.” It would not have been enough for everyone (even your suggestion would not have been enough for everyone), but likely would have been enough for UCL (having a Nobel Laureate as an Honorary Professor helps the institution’s rep).

    Thanks for sharing the “West Wing” clip.

Leave a Reply