Apology rule #1: don’t make it worse

It hasn’t been a good few weeks for David Coleman, the president of the College Board. As reported in the press and discussed with incredulity among the counseling community, Coleman penned a letter to the College Board’s members (which includes schools, colleges, counselors, etc.), ostensibly in response to the Florida school shooting, that many readers saw as a tone-deaf promotion of the College Board’s own tests.

Then the College Board and Coleman made it worse with public apologies that included the line, “We sincerely apologize that our words have taken the focus away from the needs of their community at this terrible time.”

That apology didn’t just fail to make things better. It actually managed to make things even worse.

First, the statement read like it was crafted by a PR firm rather than a human who was actually sorry. But it’s also the apology equivalent of “I’m sorry this happened” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It sounds like regret on the surface, but there’s really no evidence of contrition, or worse, of understanding just why the apology was so necessary.

People and organizations make mistakes. Sometimes they make bad mistakes. If you make one yourself that deserves an expression of apology, the formula is a simple one: express a genuine apology, explain why it was necessary, and lay out how you plan to make it right or, at the very least, avoid making the mistake again.

What if the College Board had said something like:

We are so sorry. The College Board is privileged to have the collective attention of educators we respect and kids who will take any test we design, and we squandered that attention with an email we never should have sent. We’re embarrassed that we got it so wrong at perhaps the worst possible time. It’s clear to us that we need to be better than this for you and for students, and we hope you’ll give us the chance to model better behavior and better writing in the future.

Would that have made everything right? Probably not. But it wouldn’t have made it worse.