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How to Apologize to Your Online Community


wood scrabble blocks spelling "I'm Sorry"

In light of the recent blackout on Reddit, I wanted to share some of my own lessons and learnings as an online community builder and community consultant who has had her fair share of apologies over the years.


If you've ever been on the receiving end of a bad apology, you know that giving a bad apology is worse than giving no apology at all. As a community builder, you work in a people business, which means mistakes happen and it's often necessary to recognize them and apologize before you can build trust again and move forward.


Apologizing to your community is especially nuanced because there is pain caused to an individual and pain caused to the whole. You apology must be nuanced and address several angles of empathy.


I asked friends on LinkedIn how confident they are in apologizing, this is what they said.


A LinkedIn Poll asking how confident are you in apologizing to a group of people? With 54% saying they feel very confident, 35% saying they could use some pointers, and 12% saying they don't even know where to start. 26 votes total

If you identify as very confident in your ability to apologize to a group of people, then huzzah 🎉 feel free to exit the page.


But if you're uneasy or even just a little curious about how to apologize in a way that rebuilds trust, I invite you to lean in and learn.


I've become an expert in apologizing over the years (hold your applause) in large part because I like to move quickly and in community work, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. I've learned over the years to do a lot more proactive empathy work beforehand to avoid making the same mistakes over and over, but no matter who you are and how good you are at your job, at some point you will have to apologize to your community.


What follows is a summary of my process of reflection and how I communicate an apology to a community I am managing.


Step 1 of Apology: Reflect and Summon Empathy

Before you ever dream of a happy forgiveness reunion, you best be sure to do your own work to identify where you and/or your team went wrong. Here's some questions to help prompt reflection:

  • What was the pain that was caused?

  • To whom was the pain caused?

  • What actions caused that pain?

  • What got in the way of creating empathy for the community?

  • Which value was disregarded in this process? Which one should we have been operating out of?

  • Is there a bigger systemic issue at play here?

Step 2: Draft the apology to your online community

Once you've done some proper reflection individually or as a team, summarize a specific and direct apology without baking in any excuses. Ego is the enemy of a good apology, this is not the time to make yourself look good or look like a victim. This is time to step into your ownership of the mistake. A good apology focuses on the impact, not the intention (more on that below).


Part 1: The wrong done to the wronged

"When ___(the action taken)___, we disregarded ___(the wronged group)___.
As a result ___(what happened)___."

What it sounds like:

  • When we made changes to the compensation plan, we completely disregarded our community members and our value of transparency. As a result, many of you, our members, are understandably upset and feel left unheard.

  • When we changed up our event cadence, we disregarded our members on the East Coast who don't always want to be up so late. As a result, many of you have reached out with great ideas for a better solution.

What it doesn't sound like:

  • When we made changes to the compensation plan, our members had a lot of feedback.

⬆️ Don't use "feedback" as a way to avoid directly addressing the pain that was caused.

  • We tried to make changes that would be better for everyone, but some people didn't like it.

⬆️ Don't blame the issue on the people who are experiencing the pain.


Optional Part 2: The Intention Sandwich.

I do believe that sometimes it is helpful to share your intention in an apology IF you do so to create understanding, rather than using your intention to justify the impact (that is where apologies go to 💀!)


Consider The Intention Sandwich: own the impact, share intention, reiterate the impact. If you are going to share your intention, you must first own the impact. Then you must reiterate that though your intention was something else, it clearly went horribly wrong!


We broke your trust. Though we intended ___(your intention)___, instead ___(the impact of your actions)___.

What it sounds like:

  • We broke your trust. We see now that though we intended to make these changes to benefit the community and the company, neither the changes themselves nor the way they were communicated had any benefit to the community.

  • Our actions broke your trust. While we intended to change up our event schedule to make room for more speakers, instead we alienated a really important group of community members.

What it doesn't sound like:

  • We were trying to make a positive change for everyone, but not everyone viewed it that way.

⬆️ This apology is insidious and not a real apology. It casts the blame of the issue on the way the members are interpreting the situation.

  • We meant for this to be a good thing for everyone, but we're sorry you saw it as us personally attacking people on the East Coast.

⬆️ This is not a real apology. It inflates the accusation to paint the offender as a victim.



Part 3: Apologize.

At this point, we haven't actually said "I apologize." This is an important part. It's the keystone of your apology and it lays it all on the line.

I am deeply sorry for ___(the action)___ that caused ___(the pain)___ to ___(to whom the pain was caused)___.

What it sounds like:

  • I apologize for the lack of transparency that caused so much frustration for our members.

  • I am so sorry for the lack of consideration that caused our East Coast members to feel disregarded.

What it doesn't sound like:

  • I'm sorry.

⬆️ Don't leave any room for guessing what you are apologizing for.


Part 4: What You Learned and Move Forward


Maya Angelou shares: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”


What did you learn from this experience? What will you do differently moving forward? Get as detailed as necessary depending on the audience and the level of grievance.


Thank you for ___(what they gave)___. We learned ___(what was learned)___ and moving forward ___(how you would or will approach this in the future)___.

What it sounds like:

  • Thank you for sticking with us through this messy process. We learned a lot about how we need to approach these big changes in the future. Moving forward any time we make changes as big as the compensation plan, we will put together a committee of community members to be a part of discussing these changes without putting burden on every member all at once to share.

  • To those of you who spoke up, thank you! We learned so much through this process and especially that we need to have a better beat on the range of timezones for our members. Moving forward we are adding a timezone question to our onboarding so we have a much better sense of what times work for our members.a


Step 3: Consider a tiered approach for a large online community


When apologizing to a community of people, you likely caused pain on several different levels. The more complex the hurt and the pain, the more nuanced your apology must be.


Consider this process for addressing layers of hurt caused in your community.

  1. Reach out to individuals who were impacted heavily first. Do this individually and personally. Be willing to set up a call if necessary.

  2. Gather leaders and express specific apologies for any specific impact to them. Be clear about how you will partner with them in the future and be specific about what will not happen again.

  3. Apologize publicly to the whole community.

I've occasionally heard upper management be worried that if we post a public apology to the whole community, people who weren't aware of hurt or the offense will now be aware of it.


Isn't it better to keep the apology as small as possible?


No. Community doesn't work that way. Even if they don't hear about it today, apologizing to the entire community is necessary not just for practical reasons, but for ethical ones as well.


When the whole has been caused pain, an apology to the whole is necessary.

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