In the world of crisis communications, what has the potential to be more damaging than not issuing an apology? An apology that reads like only half of one.
Nancy Brinker’s response to Sally Quinn’s open letter to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure founder and CEO includes an admission that she made mistakes and an apology to those who were disappointed by the nonprofit’s decision to pull its funding to Planned Parenthood. (Komen later said Planned Parenthood could reapply for funding.) Brinker says she has learned a lot, including that “that we in women’s health organizations must be absolutely true to our core missions, and avoid even the appearance of bias or judgment in our decisions.”
But what she does not say is more telling. Brinker does not say exactly what she is sorry for. She does not explore what mistakes she made. And she does not address several of the points in Quinn’s letter, from the ambiguity of Komen’s decision to allow Planned Parenthood to reapply—though not necessarily be funded—to why her institution’s shifting explanations for its controversial move were so confusing. It’s also interesting that it seems to have taken criticism from Sally Quinn (who describes herself as a longtime friend of Brinker’s in Washington), more so than the outrage of millions of citizens, to elicit such an admission.
There have been worse apology letters written recently by CEOs—consider the pseudo-apology letter written by Netflix’s Reed Hastings in September that sparked a company fiasco. Still, Brinker’s letter doesn’t follow the criteria Dartmouth corporate communications expert Paul Argenti describes as essential for a leader’s apology amid a crisis.
For one, she does not offer a concession: Critics wanted to see Planned Parenthood’s funding, not just its eligibility, restored. She does not seem in control of the message—she is being reactive to a letter published on The Washington Post’s Web site rather than proactive. That, of course, makes this an odd vehicle for an apology. While a press release from Brinker and the Komen board apologized “to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives,” the same release’s request for people “to help us move past this issue” made the apology feel less than truly sincere.
Komen has bungled the communications of the entire Planned Parenthood scandal from the start—from trying to quietly end the relationship with Planned Parenthood and not getting ahead of the announcement itself (a no-no in crisis communications) to the shifting explanations for its decision. As a result, it’s not surprising that Brinker’s response feels as if it only goes so far. Leaders who make public apologies cannot stop halfway—they must describe what they are sorry for, what mistakes they realize they’ve made, and what they plan to do to keep them from ever happening again in the future.
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