Communications is inherently human work, and inevitably, mistakes happen that cause harm. Understanding how to issue a sincere apology is important to caring for your community.
The UC Davis Social Media team made such a mistake in February of 2021 when a post on our Instagram misgendered a student in the caption. We had the correct chosen pronoun information, but our bias revealed itself when the copy was written and wasn’t checked. While the mistake was unintentional, the harm done was real and the community came to the student’s defense.
In our attempt to apologize, we further fumbled. First, we referred to the mistake as a “typo.” In doing so our apology appeared to downplay the mistake. Second, we rushed to apologize publicly to the community but didn’t immediately contact the student, Kate, to apologize, listen and make amends.
We eventually connected with Kate to fully apologize for the harm we inflicted. (You can read my email apology to them in full, at the end of this post). We ultimately had several meaningful conversations that helped our team identify systemic issues with the way our department collects, saves and shares pronoun information. We now carry those lessons forward and are working with others on campus to enact more inclusive approaches.
While mistakes are uncomfortable, we’ve learned that a true apology doesn’t backpedal; instead it leans in and takes responsibility for harm done. We were reminded that we should always prioritize people and relationships over any content.
Note: Kate gave us the approval to share this story publicly on this blog in the hopes that others can learn from our mistakes, and together we can impact change on campus.
Dear Kate – My name is Sallie Poggi, and I am the director of Social Media here are UC Davis. I am responsible for the team that manages all of the flagship UC Davis social channels, and I was forwarded this email and flagged about the incident that happened and impacted you on Instagram yesterday. First - I want to take full responsibility and apologize to you for the serious error that my team made in misidentifying your gender. You are absolutely correct – this was not a mere typo, nor should we have labeled it as such, but a transgression of trust with you. We have a process to identify pronouns and it clearly failed in this instance and caused you harm. Second – I also want to take full responsibility for the way the apology was handled. You are correct that we should have reached out directly to you. What we did was apologize to the community and we failed in not contacting you – the person most impacted – to offer the apology and amends. This is an important lesson that our team will never forget - that the person who was impacted is the priority and the most important. We botched it – plain and simple – and for this we are also deeply sorry. I know that sorry is not enough to undo the stress and impact that this had on you, so I would like to offer a few actions for your consideration and a commitment: • Would you prefer if we remove the post altogether? Im not suggesting this because we want to erase or hide anything, but rather for your privacy and/or feelings about being on the UC Davis Instagram. We can also issue another statement in the comments of the post that address the need for a deeper apology. • Would you like to talk on the phone? I am here to listen to your thoughts and find ways we can improve. I take this seriously, so if you have more to say or want to connect I am absolutely willing to receive the feedback “in person.” My cell is ---------- • We are committing to reviewing our internal process to ensure gender pronouns are more carefully handled. We will also be sharing that process with our social media colleagues across the university so that we can empower everyone to do better. Im happy to report anything back to you about that process to stay accountable to you. Thank you for reading this and please don’t hesitate to let me know if you would like to talk further or if there is further action you would like on the post. ~Sallie