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In Paterno death apology, a lesson for CEOs

Companies screw up all the time, and have to write up statements to apologize for their mistakes. But all too frequently, the apologies are weak, conditional and completely insincere.
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Companies screw up all the time, and have to write up statements to apologize for their mistakes. But all too frequently, the apologies are weak, conditional and completely insincere.

Saturday night, a kid from a little student-run website at Penn State showed everybody how you're supposed to apologize for a terrible mistake.

It started when the site, Onward State, reported on its Twitter account that Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who is in the hospital and near death, had passed away.

The news was picked up by CBS Sports without attribution, and published an obituary of Paterno. It spread nationally from there (check out Poynter's full breakdown of how things went down).

Turns out, it wasn't true. The Paterno family debunked the report, and Onward State made an official retraction. Paterno died Sunday morning, following the incident.

21-year-old Onward State managing editor and Penn State senior Devon Edwards then published a letter on the Onward State website and Facebook page that every CEO and PR pro needs to read.

This is how you apologize for a mistake:

A Letter from the Managing Editor of Onward StateEarlier this evening, Onward State reported that Joe Paterno had passed away; however, the mountain of evidence stacked opposite that report became too much to ignore. At this time, I would like to issue an official retraction of our earlier tweets. I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way. In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm. All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility. I can only hope and pray that the outstanding work our writers and photographers do on a day-to-day basis is not overshadowed by the events of tonight. I understand that our reputation is in serious question, but I hope you will continue to stand by us as we do everything in our power to make amends. To begin that process, I will be stepping down from my post as Managing Editor, effective immediately. I take full responsibility for the events that transpired tonight, and for the black mark upon the organization that I have caused. I ask not for your forgiveness, but for your understanding. I am so very, very, sorry, and we at Onward State continue to pray for Coach Paterno. Sincerely, Devon Edwards

There's not a line of bull in there.

Did he need to resign? Perhaps not. Either way, it's sincere, heartfelt and human. There are no conditions set, no distancing and no excuses. He screwed up, and he accepted full responsibility.

Why is it so hard for big-time CEOs (and media folks, for that matter) to do the same when something happens on their watch?

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