We’ve all done it.

We labor over an email that’s going out to a wide distribution list. We edit and re-edit, get input from our team, and agonize over graphics and header styles. Final copy gets approved. Then we take a deep breath and hit “Send.”

Then, either it hits us right away, or we receive a “huh?” reply. We realize we didn’t double-check one thing: the distribution list. Our email has bombed the inboxes of dozens (or hundreds or thousands) of unintended recipients who trusted us with their addresses.

Apologizing is an art, as anyone in any form of relationship knows. But how does that play out in the field of user experience and digital communications?

Luckily, I was a recent recipient of just such an “oops.” Instead of some random company I didn’t want to hear from anyway, it was from Rosenfeld Media, a UX industry giant. Their apology email sets the bar by demonstrating six essential ingredients:

  1. Proper timing (in this case, immediately)
  2. What happened (but not too much)
  3. How it happened (but not too much, and not excuses)
  4. What DIDN’T happen (allaying fears)
  5. Personal accountability (name/title, preferably an executive)
  6. And last but actually most essential, an apology. In so many words. Maybe twice. (But not three times.)

Having covered the essentials, Rosenfeld Media lightens the mood, reminding us we’re all human. They issue a friendly farewell, as if to say “We’re still friends, right?”

As a mother of two boys, I hear some pretty unconvincing attempts at “sorry,” and believe me, trust is not always restored. But I’ve received short-but-sweet notes from stores, airlines, newspaper delivery services, etc., which fit the bill. And then there are the lengthy briefings about serious issues—airbag recalls or database hacks—that demand legalese.

But as Medical Board communications managers, many of our errors will fall middle-of-the-road. We must do the job of apologizing without making it all about ourselves. Thank you to Lou and the Rosenfeld Media team for providing a practical template and for relentlessly modeling how to put the user first.

Note: I do not work for nor own shares in Rosenfeld Media or any other publication company. All opinions and recommendations are my own, gained from experience, and shared here in hopes of making the web a better place.