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    February 2018

    Apologies and Expressions of Empathy

    Public statements of apology, empathy, or regret by presidents or high-ranking officials at colleges and schools appear to be increasingly common. When used correctly in response to significant events such as student unrest or sexual harassment and assault allegations epitomized by the #MeToo movement, apologies are powerful tools that can help heal a community. If not issued sensitively and timely, however, they can fuel resentment and even encourage a lawsuit.

    In today’s social media environment, the school or college will also need a strong, united online presence. Knowledge of the digital medium and an awareness of what online information is shared should factor into an institution’s response. In general, facts and circumstances will determine whether an expression of empathy or apology is appropriate and how to communicate it. Before making any statements, a school should consult with legal and communications professionals. 

    What Is an Apology?

    Apologies can be characterized as an appeal to remedy an offense through contrition and acknowledgment of fault. In general, an effective apology will:

    • Be personal
    • Be sincere and target 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

    Most commentators distinguish between an apology and an expression of empathy or sympathy. An institution may express concern or regret for the circumstances that led to an incident or injury, and an understanding of how the affected people feel, without accepting fault or responsibility for the injury or loss.  

    How and When?

    Typically, expressions of empathy or sympathy should follow quickly after an event. In cases involving a determination of wrongdoing, an investigation is usually required to determine fault. Any statement accepting responsibility should wait until after the investigation is complete and after consultation with the institution’s legal counsel. When fault is uncertain, institutions should avoid unwittingly assuming liability. See the resources for sample communications from schools expressing empathy without implicating responsibility.

    When appropriate, the institution should communicate with the affected people before making a public statement. A face-to-face communication is generally considered most effective; however, there are instances where a telephone call or letter is appropriate. If circumstances require sending the message quickly, use a more immediate mode of communication initially, such as an email or text, and then follow up with a letter.

    Phone calls, emails, or letters may not always be the most effective way to reach out to the campus community. Rather, certain events or crises may require the use of online communication platforms, such as Twitter. Again, consult with legal counsel and communication professionals on when and how to use these platforms. See the resources for examples of apologies issued by high-ranking officials. 

    Who Is the Best Spokesperson?

    Depending on the severity of the incident, institutional statements of concern or regret should be made by a high-ranking official. Communications experts can advise whether the statement is best made by the chief executive official—such as a president, chancellor, principal, or head of school—or by another official, such as a provost, dean, or department head. It is important to assign a “face” to the school’s response and make the response personal and, thus, more believable and sincere. Regardless of the spokesperson, the institution should present a united front in its response and have a crisis communication plan in place.

    UE’s ProResponse benefit can assist schools in obtaining outside public relations expertise for immediate assistance.  


    Crisis Response Learning Program
    Handling Catastrophic Incidents Requires Cool Head, Warm Heart

    The New Digital Normal on Campus

    Responding to a Social Media Crisis

    Sample Statements on Student Unrest 

    President Martha Pollack, Cornell University (October 2017)
    President Wayne A. I. Frederick, Howard University (August 2017)

    President Laurie Patton, Middlebury College (March 2017)

    Sample Statements on Sexual Harassment or Assault

    Chancellor Gary May, University of California at Davis (December 2017)
    President Roger Brown, Berklee College of Music (November 2017)

    Sample Statements on Student Death

    Karen Warren Coleman, Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services, University of Chicago (February 2014)
    President Greg Crawford, Miami University (February 2017)


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