Sender’s Remorse: How to Recover When Student Messaging Goes to the Wrong Audience

Marianne Sipe

Marianne Sipe

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If you have been in marketing and communications long enough, you have undoubtedly sent a beautifully crafted message to the wrong audience. Colleges and universities across the U.S. have experienced it at some time with email or text messaging. Some of these epic events make the headlines in higher ed articles; you hope yours does not.

What do you do when sender’s remorse strikes after you launch a mass message? First, take a deep breath. You can often recover with some grace by using humor in the situation. Then, find someone to help you—a strategy partner or peer who understands the issue and can help brainstorm how to rectify the situation.

In times like this, our brains can go into flight or fight mode, and our brain’s rational, problem-solving part leaves the room. But at the end of the day, it isn’t the mistake that defines you—it is how you handle making it right.

That’s a big ask, and you’ll likely benefit from having a “buddy” to help put a plan together.

Don’t Do It Alone

Determine the gravity of the situation—some send mistakes are simply not that bad, no matter how awful you feel in the moment.

For instance, if a recruitment email designed for juniors in high school is sent to seniors, the recovery is quick. But let’s say you sent an email notifying a group of students that they are on academic probation – but they really aren’t. Now what?

This happened once to one of my teammates. She came to my office, proverbial tail between her legs. As the story rolled out, I shared my first observation, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t admit them when they should have been denied admission?” My deflated team member felt a little better when she realized it could have been much worse. Then I gave her the next steps: alerting the affected department.

Wrong Email Flow Chart by Stamats

Communicate with the Affected Department

When an unfortunate send occurs, you must tell the departments affected, since incoming messages about the mistake will undoubtedly start right away. In this case, it was the registrar’s office that would see the outcomes.

Students, and potentially parents, will start calling, caught off guard by the message, wondering why they are on academic probation. The registrar’s office will not understand why such a message was sent to the student and will have to backtrack and confirm the academic standing of every student who calls.

By getting in front of the rising wave, the affected office can head off confused and upset students and parents with grace. This also buys you time to start the repair work for the message sent. Involving the affected departments can create an alliance with them. By sharing what has happened and how you plan to repair it, the office can provide some insight and potential solutions.

Providing a transparent approach helps build trust and keeps them on your team. This gives the department the ability to inform the students who call that they will soon get a message regarding the wrong sent message. It may be the hardest thing you have done in a long time. but it will buy you all kinds of trust for future issues.

Follow Up and Be Authentic

Once the department is in the loop, start to craft a follow-up message. Voice and tone are important for this message, as is staying humble and authentic. We all make mistakes and remaining professional is key. Keep to the point. As you do when crafting an effective communication plan, do not split the point or CTA in the message.

Include a contact person in the message who the student can call for clarification. Do not assume the student has opened both emails; they may read your second corrective email and be equally confused. Make sure your buddy or someone in the office reads and proofs your message before sending. Remember, emotions are running high for you; it is better to have someone else who is not as close to the issue read the message before sending.

Maintain a Sense of Humor

Once, when I was sending communications from a spreadsheet, I sent the right message to the right audience. But inadvertently, I shifted rows on my spreadsheet and lined up parents to another student listed. The result provided an email to parents about steps toward their student going to college—for other people’s children.

The message did not directly affect another department (thank goodness), but I needed to correct my mistake. I quickly wrote a second email explaining my error and apologized for adding another child to their household. The responses from parents helped lift my spirits in a rather humbling experience. One dad jokingly replied that he had twins and really didn’t think he needed another child in the house!

When working through what kind of voice to carry for the follow-up, consider the recipients’ feelings after the erroneous message. An incorrect notice about academic probation can create high stress, so humor might not fit well in that corrective email. It is better to keep it simple, apologize, and include an explanation of what the email should have said or was simply sent in error.

Using a sense of humor in messages is not always the best solution. However, don’t rule it out in the beginning, and see if there is a way to weave a bit of lightheartedness into your corrective messaging.

Who Else Needs to Know?

Realizing the wrong message is sent is a humbling experience on its own. Having to share with someone else, let alone your boss, is downright disheartening. Regardless, it is important that they are made aware of the issue.

Determining when is the best time to tell them is better left to your work environment and relationship. Choosing not to tell them will probably not fare well in the end, as it will eventually come up in a meeting and they may be caught off guard. No matter how hard it may seem to confess your error, it is better to be upfront and keep them in the loop about what has developed.

Sharing with your supervisor is an opportunity to come together and collaborate. When you share, come with a plan. Providing solutions and leaving the conversation open for discussion about how to address the issue can lead to natural collaboration.  Showing up with a plan also demonstrates your willingness to own the mistake and make it right.

Maintain Professionalism

As much as you may want to throw something, scream, and stomp, it is better to do that at home (or at least away from the Zoom camera!). Stick to developing a plan for the best outcome to remain focused on the right decision at each given moment. Keep the right parties included in your plan and use your resources to address issues that arise. Remember, it isn’t the mistake that defines you. It’s how you handle the mistake that will create partnerships for future missteps.

Would you like to connect with someone who has been where you are? Message Marianne Sipe to exchange your right message-wrong audience stories or learn how to handle it if and when it does.

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