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Apologies and Expressions of Empathy

Alyssa Keehan, Esq., CPCU, ARM
October 2020
How to prepare a strong, united, effective response

Public statements of apology, empathy, or regret by presidents or high-ranking officials at K-12 schools, colleges, and universities are increasingly common. When used correctly in response to challenging campus events, apologies are powerful tools that can help heal a community. If not issued sensitively and timely, however, they can fuel resentment and even encourage lawsuits.

In today’s social media environment, your institution also needs a strong, united online response. Knowledge of the digital medium and an awareness of your institution’s online communication strategy should factor into your response.

In general, facts and circumstances will determine whether an expression of empathy or apology is appropriate and how to communicate it. Before your institution makes any statements, consult with legal and communications professionals.

What Are Apologies, Expressions of Empathy?

Apologies are expressions of regret and remorse and often attempt to remedy an offense through contrition and acknowledgment of fault. In general, an effective apology will:

  • Be personal
  • Sincerely address the most affected audience
  • Acknowledge an offense or injury
  • Express sympathy, remorse, or regret
  • Discuss steps being taken to resolve the problem
  • Effect changes to ensure the offense won’t happen again
  • Not make excuses or reassign blame

Genuine expressions of empathy or sympathy share many characteristics with apologies. However, in an expression of empathy or sympathy, the institution generally expresses concern or regret for the circumstances that led to an incident or injury, or an understanding of how the affected people feel, without accepting fault or responsibility for the injury or loss.

How and When Should you Respond?

Typically, expressions of empathy or sympathy should quickly occur after an event. In cases involving a determination of wrongdoing, an investigation is usually required to determine fault. Don’t apologize or make another statement accepting responsibility until after the investigation is complete and after consulting with your legal counsel. When fault is uncertain, avoid unwittingly assuming liability.

See the resources below for sample communications expressing empathy without accepting responsibility.

When appropriate, communicate with the affected people before speaking publicly. Face-to-face communication is usually most effective; however, there are instances where a call or letter is appropriate. If circumstances require sending the message quickly, use a more immediate mode of initial communication, such as an email or text, and follow up with a letter or in-person visit.

Extending the apology or expression of sympathy to your broader campus community can occur in a variety of ways, depending on the situation. Where a public statement is possible, consider livestreaming it or posting a video link. In other situations, emails may be appropriate in lieu of or in conjunction with the public statement.

In this digital age, certain events or crises may require the use of platforms such as Twitter. Consult with legal counsel and communications professionals on which method to use to communicate your message.

For United Educators (UE) members who are eligible, UE’s ProResponse benefit can help institutions receive outside public relations expertise for immediate assistance.

Who Is the Best Spokesperson?

Depending on the incident’s severity, a high-ranking official should provide institutional statements of concern or regret. Communications experts can advise whether the statement is best made by the chief executive — such as a president, chancellor, principal, or head of school — or another official, such as a provost, dean, or department head.

It is important to assign a “face” to your institution’s response and make the response personal and, thus, more believable and sincere. Regardless of the spokesperson, present a united front in your response and have a crisis communication plan in place. See the resources below for examples of apologies from high-ranking officials.


More From UE

Online Course: Crisis Response

Additional Resources

Sample Statements on Student Unrest
Cornell University (October 2017)
Middlebury College (March 2017)

Sample Statements on Sexual Harassment or Assault
University of California at Davis (December 2017)

Sample Statements on Student Death
University of Chicago (February 2014)
Miami University (February 2017)

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