You Call That an Apology? What Rush Limbaugh Can Teach Corporations about Good PR

By David Oates, APR, Founder and President, Stalwart Communications

Whether you’re a fan of the conservative talk show host or not, one thing’s for certain; he really stepped in it last month. He backed himself into a corner, tried to fight his way out and ultimately cried “Uncle” only after sponsors began dropping support for his program en masse.

Every PR practitioner that I’ve spoken to about his vicious verbal attacks on a Georgetown law student who testified to Congressional Democrats favoring the Obama Administration’s proposed healthcare policy on contraceptives had the same reaction. They condemned it in the strongest terms, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the President’s stance. My colleagues saw no place for such a diatribe. Yet there was Rush, defending his words days later only to finally issue an apology on Saturday.

Some would conclude that Limbaugh finally righted a wrong by saying he was sorry for his choice of language. As a PR professional, I think he’s still up a big, dirty creek. I doubt few really believe the sincerity of his apology. No one would be able to downplay the repeated usage of terms like “slut” to someone by simply following up with “my bad.”  For Rush to have a shot at being respected by sponsors and listeners again, he’s going to have to go further than that. Much further.

If I was his publicist, I would start with making him apologize in person to the law student he defamed, then follow up with a press conference on the footsteps of Georgetown University to do the same in public. From there, I would have Rush make a sizable contribution to a battered women’s shelter in New York, his current residence, and set up some time for him to volunteer at the facility in some capacity. Actions like this will be the only way Limbaugh can convince the general public that he’s truly contrite.

There’s a terrific lesson for the rest of us here; an official statement isn’t enough to get the public back on your side. While I doubt most of us would have ranted on like Limbaugh did, we’ve all said things that,  in hindsight, we wish we could have taken back. It’s the nature of our business. When we recant, though, we must be sincere and include the following elements:

  • A full, genuine and unequivocal apology given in person to the media and the offending parties by the individual who made the initial comments; not through some spokesperson (though make sure you’re in the room). While the Corporate Communications head may opt to not have the person take questions, the message must be delivered live and in living color.
  • A full account for how else the person will make amends. This may require a personal contribution, volunteer hours, inclusion in subsequent discussions or all of the above. Follow through is key here, and the public must be made aware of how the individual is trying to repair the damage their words created.
  • An emphasis on how this incident is not in line with the organization’s core values. Be sure to bring home the main messages of the organization to which the person in question represents and why their actions are contrary to its core values.

Anything short of a full apology and concerted efforts to rectify the situation will look insincere and cause even greater harm than before. PR professionals take note – the genie won’t go back in the box. The only thing you can do is try to make peace with it.


About the author: David Oates, APR, is the Founder and President of Stalwart Communications, a full service, Pay-on-Performance Marketing and PR firm in San Diego. Email him at or on Twitter at



  1. Peter Faur on March 9, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    All great thoughts, David. I think, however, that Limbaugh isn’t really contrite and won’t be interested. He still has his base, he doesn’t care about the rest of us, and (he maintains) he hasn’t been hurt financially.

    My guess is that he believes his apology has played well to his base, and that’s all that matters to him. What we see as a blow to his reputation, he sees as just another controversy that will blow over.

  2. Mary on March 9, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Your suggestions are perfect for most entities, but for Mr. Limbaugh, the rant does represent his core values, so his apology is as much as he can give. As for having him volunteer at a woman’s center, not such a good idea. Frankly, his video comment showed how creepy he is and I don’t think his presence at a shelter for battered women would be in anyway reassuring. I am afraid Mr. Faur is right, this is just another controversy that will blow over and give Limbaugh a bunch of free advertising in the meantime.

  3. Donna Maurillo on March 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    Your evaluation is right on. Unfortunately, this is nothing Mr Limbaugh will do. Why should he? He’s still raking in the big bucks by his embarrassing rants… because he has a following that agrees with him. Like someone once said, there never will be a shortage of idiots.

    However, your lessons are good ones for anyone else — individual or company — that steps into a hornet’s nest. Rush may be able to get away (almost) unscathed. But the rest of us want to be better than that.

  4. William Adler on March 20, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    I think Mary has it right: since what Limbaugh said was not an aberration, but rather was consistent with his longstanding positions and comments, an apology simply doesn’t work. He gave the minimum apology possible, “regretting” the two most harsh words he used, but not the essence of his personal assault, while his base circulated a contextual excuse that the victim was not REALLY 23, but 30, and that Limbaugh had “fallen into a snare” (as if she were the diabolical perpetrator, or a tool, of same) and that THIS is what was regrettable. So, he kept his base in line while giving the time-sales department at least something for them to work with. This is similar to what happened to Don Imus a few years ago — in that case, as well, his comments were NOT inconsistent with his usual schtick. Sometimes in broadcasting one simply goes too far at the wrong time, and the resulting spotlight leads to everyone clucking, like in the finale of Casablanca, “I’m shocked… truly shocked (to find this going on).” There is no way that Limbaugh could have used PR to craft a better apology, short of actually making a sea-change directional shift.

  5. 919 Marketing on May 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    […] What Rush Limbaugh Can Teach Corporate America about PR: From Frank – Very true point at the end, especially with the 24/7 media cycle.  Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s gone and not coming back. […]