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How To Say You’re Sorry

Stephen Biernacki

First of all, if your institution hasn’t had to make a formal, large-scale apology for any reason to this point, congratulations! Seriously, congratulations. Pat yourself and your fellow colleagues on the back for preventing any mega mishaps and staying focused on details.

Yet, consider that in the future it’s entirely possible something drastic could go wrong, and if that happens, you’ll likely have to offer up a meaningful apology. It’s worthwhile to be prepared by having an idea of what the general outline of your apology might look like. While you can’t predict what you might be apologizing for (who on earth wants to think about that), most branded messaging and structure can be prepared ahead of time to at least give you a great starting point. A decent analogy might be using LinkedIn. You shouldn’t wait to join the network until you need a job. Join the network and keep your profile up to date, and if the time comes that you need a job, you’ll be ready.

Why Building a Rough Apology Template is Smart

  • Prompt Apologies Look Great:The quicker you can post a thoughtful apology, the more it looks like you care. Don’t sacrifice quality for speed, of course. But it’s important to get the word out as fast as you can. We live in a real-time world, so keep up as best as possible. A general outline can help with this.
  • Fix the News: What I mean by this is industry news sites – let’s take Inside Higher Ed, for example, might report on your situation rather quickly after it occurs. If their initial story includes the apology, you’re already a step ahead. Without an apology, there is still uncertainty over whether an apology is even on the horizon.
  • Less Stressful: If you can build from an initial template, it’s easier to remain calm and focused when writing the apology. Your head will be clear and it’ll be easier to include the most important points related to the mistake.
  • More Time to Connect with Audiences: If you have less resources devoted to writing an apology, it’s easier for your team to spend time putting out fires on Twitter and other social networks. Sometimes it’s best to wait for an official word (the apology) that you can link to, but other times, it’s nice to simply send a message to let your audience know you’re listening to their concerns.

An Inspiring Apology Example

Yes, I believe it’s possible for an apology to be inspiring, and that inspiration usually comes from just how doggone transparent they are. Look no further than social network Path to see how it’s done best.

It was discovered that Path uploads their users’ address book information to their servers without disclosing it to users. With privacy around the Web being a sticky subject of late, it was especially important to get this right. I think it’s fair to say that the reputation of the company depended on it.

So how did Path handle it? First, they admitted they were wrong. Secondly, they told the truth. Thirdly, they took action. In the apology, CEO Dave Morin notes that Path deleted the entire collection of user uploaded contact information from their servers. Finally, they really, really took the fall. A couple vital snippets from the apology (underlines under the text was added by me):

“Through the feedback we’ve received from all of you, we now understand that the way we had designed our ‘Add Friends’ feature was wrong. We are deeply sorry if you were uncomfortable with how our application used your phone contacts.”

We care deeply about your privacy and about creating a trusted place for you to share life with your close friends and family. As we continue to expand and grow we will make some mistakes along the way. We commit to you that we will continue to be transparent and always serve you, our users, first.

There are elements to the apology that are candid, sincere, and heartfelt. Use whatever adjective you want, but overall, this is a wonderful example of how a business should apologize. While some companies might have taken a defensive approach, Path didn’t, and I applaud them for having the guts to so openly and bluntly admit they were wrong. People respect that, and in the end, they’re arguably better for it.

Another aspect of their apology worth noting is CEO Dave Morin reaching out to a few Twitter users the day before the apology was posted. Here’s a screenshot of some of his responses:

Tips for Writing an Apology
Besides taking a look at success examples like above, there are some fairly standard pointers to constructing a great apology. This article by Tom Searcy entitled “7 tips on how to apologize in the business world” is a fine place to start. While the phrasing identifies apologizing to a singular individual, these concepts are spot on and are something any institution of higher education can pull inspiration from.

In fact, the University of Manitoba incorporated a few of these principles when apologizing for the century-long assimilation policy. To go further, when the University came under a bit of scrutiny for their apology, the President did an interview to bring clarification to some aspects of it (note that Dave Morin of Path did this, too). Even if there isn’t much lingering negative sentiment, giving an interview can be an effective strategy for bringing attention to specific details – if that’s something you think may benefit you further.

While this TechCrunch apology form was written primarily in jest, the fact that this was even published speaks volumes to its relevancy. If you can look past the joking aspects of it (particularly the “Ps.” and after), it’s actually a decent starting point!

While it might be obvious now, remember that you can’t be too prepared, and having this kind of information at the ready makes making an apology faster and easier. Tell it like it is, and censor yourself as little as possible. To steal a line from Gary Vaynerchuk, transparency is the currency of our time.

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