The Most Notable CEO Apologies Of 2012

The public apology has long been a staple of PR and reputation management, and this year saw a large number of C-level mea culpas. Some were mandated, while others were designed to beg forgiveness, right wrongs, or restore good will. Here’s my list of the most notable.

Picture this: Instagram is forced to backpedal after issuing a modified Terms of Service policy that many feared could “effectively transform the Web site into the world’s largest stock photo agency.” In a blog post, cofounder Kevin Systrom blamed “confusing language” and pledged not to sell users’ photos. His statement did quell one controversy, but the social media storm has raised other issues about privacy and user protections.

Pink slip-up? The saddest, and possibly most ineffectual, apology might have been that delivered by former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson about his “resume inflation.”  The embattled chief issued a statement taking responsibility for the goof and apologizing to Yahoo employees, but without any explanation or clear way forward. It wasn’t enough; he was ousted after just four months on the job.

J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon‘s apology for unprecedented trading losses was surprisingly robust for the previously untouchable banker; in “contrite” and widely publicized testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, he called the bank’s $2 billion error “embarrassing,” adding “the buck stops with me.” Dimon’s statement got mixed reviews, primarily due to his opposition to regulatory measures that many feel might have kept the bucks in the bank. The apology was articulate, yet Dimon’s credibility took a hit.

Among the most delayed and ultimately impotent apologies was that offered by Nancy Brinker, Founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Brinker’s explanation of Komen’s initial decision to withhold funding from Planned Parenthood, in which she admitted that she “made some mistakes” in letting things be politicized, wasn’t enough to pacify critics, and the group’s fundraising continues to be less than healthy.

The most shocking public admission of culpability might have been delivered by Irene Dorner, president and CEO of HSBC Bank USA. Dorner testified about the lack of controls that allowed Mexican drug cartels and other illicit organizations to launder billions through HSBC’s U.S. operation. Though the misconduct predated her tenure, Dormer expressed “deep regret” for the lapses and pledged that the bank had “burned bridges” so that it could not happen again. But many were skeptical of a whitewash, given the bank’s relatively light fine, and no criminal prosecutions.

Talk about bad taste. One of the lamer apologies came from Popchips CEO Keith Belling after a video ad threatened to fry the brand’s reputation. In it, Ashton Kutcher impersonated different characters in what resembled a video dating parody. One persona was “Raj,” a Bollywood producer complete with brownface and a phony singsong meant to be an Indian accent. Many viewers thought it racist, prompting Belling to respond, “Our team worked hard to create a light-hearted parody featuring a variety of characters that was meant to provide a few laughs…. I take full responsibility and apologize to anyone we offended.” In my book, anyone who utters such a mealy-mouthed sound bite should eat his words; a half-baked apology usually makes things worse. Yet, Popchips took down the video and the food fight calmed down.

By most accounts, the Apple CEO Tim Cook’s mea culpa following its Maps debacle hit all the right notes. The full letter to customers is a masterpiece of good communications. It was swift and direct, and in the statement Cook took responsibility for the lapse and pledged to fix it. He won extra credibility by recommending that users download competitive products until such time as Apple could get it right. The apology succeeded because it reminded us how rare it is for Apple to disappoint its customers.

Can Komen Recover From Its PR Disaster?

Susan G. Komen For the Cure, the force behind the ubiquitous pink breast-cancer ribbon, had a lot of people seeing red this week. After withering social criticism and fierce pressure from influentials, Komen reversed its controversial decision to defund Planned Parenthood. But a formidable symbol of grassroots activism built over 30 years has taken a beating. What happened? Can Komen recover?

Maybe because it comes on the heels of the SOPA defeat, PR and crisis experts are calling the Komen-Planned Parenthood bloodbath a victory for the social Web. I don’t think so. Sure, Facebook and Twitter helped accelerate the outrage cycle on both sides. But, this crisis isn’t fundamentally about social media. It’s not even about politics, though our polarized culture has seeped into the public dialogue.

It’s about complacency. Mission drift. And poor communications, of course. The upshot of all the sound and fury is a breach of trust by an extraordinarily powerful brand.

As the largest network of breast cancer survivors and activists, the Komen organization has been the 800-pound gorilla of social marketing and a fundraising powerhouse. Its mission – a world without breast cancer – and the personal story behind it, is brilliant in its simplicity and fervor.

But somewhere along the line, Komen lost sight of the finish line. Its trademarking of the word “cure” and large spend on marketing and promotion (as opposed to research), raised questions about priorities. It tried to keep other anti-cancer groups from using the color pink. It became a bit of a bully. And, who can forget Buckets for the Cure?

But with its recent self-inflicted troubles, it seems that Komen took the vast pink army it mobilized for granted. Now, that army has turned on it.

And in PR terms, Komen erred in several very basic ways. Its apology is likely to infuriate pro-life advocates who welcomed the Planned Parenthood defunding, while not fully convincing original advocates that it’s sincere. It’s a lose-lose. To recover its own brand health, it needs to return to its roots, and to recommit to the fundamentals of public and constituent communications, as follows.

The mission is the message. No organization that relies on individual and corporate donations can afford to politicize a fundamentally non-political, non-partisan mission. Whatever its true reason for changing funding guidelines (and it now seems clear it saw Planned Parenthood as a drag on fundraising), it had to know that it was a risky move.

Transparency is critical. Komen’s fundamental strategic error was compounded by a lack of planning and poor communications. First, it tied the funding change to a new policy to withhold grants to organizations “under investigation.” When that triggered indignant questions about a double standard, the story shifted to one about direct support for screening clinics rather than referrers. Nothing kills credibility like a changing narrative.

Stand together. Preferably, armed with the truth. CEO Nancy Brinker was swiftly contradicted by a Board member who publicly linked the change to a plan to drop Planned Parenthood. The resignation of a senior Komen executive was seen as protest, and no one was prepared to challenge, or even respond, to the stories. It’s hard enough to fight antagonists. But when you’re fighting your own people, it’s nearly impossible.

Speak from the heart. Though Brinker tried to focus her talking points on tighter standards for outcomes, she was clearly unprepared for the cynical reaction to the move. Breast cancer, women’s health, income inequality, reproductive rights, – all are highly charged issues, yet Brinker’s video response came off a bit as defensive policy-speak that sidestepped the questions about motives.

Rally your advocates. The juggernaut that inspired so much loyalty seemed sadly alone as it faced the swirl of questions around its decision. The low point was Brinker’s interview with a clearly infuriated Andrea Mitchell, herself a cancer survivor and one-time Komen supporter.

Where does Komen go from here? Though its apology was welcomed by many who had angrily protested the change, Komen’s carefully worded statement isn’t strong enough to restore the trust of its supporters. The reversal is an obvious response to public pressure, and it’s hard to tell if Komen will truly restore the previous Planned Parenthood relationship.

To recover, Komen needs to refocus on its real enemy – cancer. It has confused fundraising prowess with success. It doesn’t need to be the biggest, the strongest, or even the pinkest. It simply needs to recommit to its original goal of protecting women’s health, while restoring confidence among corporate sponsors that their brands are once again safe with the pink ribbon.